Tokyo, Japan | AFP | On a continent where “imitation” Galacticos are a dime a dozen, Japan’s Takefusa Kubo could just be the real deal.
Snapped up by Real Madrid on Friday from under the noses of some of the world’s other top clubs, the teenage sensation is about to demonstrate why he is known as the “Japanese Messi” at the tender age of 18.
The youngster, described by Real as one of the most promising players in world football, is set to create a buzz at this month’s Copa America in Brazil after earning his first senior call-up for the Blue Samurai.
Rarely an Asian football tournament goes by without a “Thai Zico,” an “Iraqi Cristiano Ronaldo” or even a “North Korean Wayne Rooney” among the team rosters.
But it was Kubo who was invited to Barcelona’s youth academy as a scrawny nine-year-old where he earned his nickname for his mazy dribbling skills.
Though the Catalan giants were keen to retain him, Real Madrid took the plunge, heading off interest from Manchester City, Manchester United and Paris Saint-Germain.
The midfielder signed from FC Tokyo could come face-to-face with Argentina wizard Messi at the Copa America depending on results in the group stage.
Kubo is one of 17 uncapped players in coach Hajime Moriyasu’s new-look Japan squad as the tournament guests look to build for next year’s Tokyo Olympics but is destined to attract by far the most interest.
The world’s biggest clubs have been tracking his progress since he appeared in the 2017 Under-20 World Cup — at just 15.
Earlier the same year he became the J-League’s youngest goalscorer, triggering the sort of hype once reserved for the likes of Japan greats Hidetoshi Nakata and Keisuke Honda.
A YouTube sensation as a pint-sized toddler, Kubo none the less rejects comparisons to Barcelona hero Messi.
– No fear –
“I don’t like being compared to Messi,” he said. “But one day I hope to be able to play like him.”
Slightly taller than Messi at 1.73 metres (5ft 8in), Kubo has a similarly low centre of gravity to the Argentina legend and an eye for a defence-splitting pass.
Japan face Chile in their opening Copa America in Sao Paolo on Monday, while Uruguay and Ecuador, also in group C, meet Sunday.
Kubo, who could become the face of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, insists Japan’s “Baby Samurai” will go into the competition with no fear.
“Teams like Brazil will definitely be serious about winning,” he told local media.
“We will have to match the desire of our opponents when we get on the pitch.”
Earlier this year, Moriyasu left big-name players such as Honda, Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki out of the Asian Cup squad that were beaten 3-1 in the final by Qatar.
“We are looking to bring in a new generation of players,” Moriyasu said of his Copa selection.
“It’s a good opportunity for them to gain some valuable experience.”
Kubo’s former club manager Kenta Hasegawa backed the midfielder to seize his chance to shine on the world stage.
“Takefusa doesn’t need a babysitter, he has matured a lot,” the FC Tokyo boss told Japanese media.
“This kind of opportunity might only come around once in a lifetime — he will only benefit from the experience.”