As the Japan team walked through the mixed zone after their Copa América game against Chile in São Paulo, there wasn’t the usual pointy-elbowed rush to crowd around whichever players stop to say a few words.
A small group of Japanese journalists had made the long journey took a minute to talk to Shinji Okazaki, but most of the squad passed without a second look from the South American media.
It was a collection of mostly under-23 players who had been sent in preparation for next year’s Olympic games in Tokyo and there were very few recognisable names.
But then the boy wonder arrived. Small, baby-faced and with his floppy hair hanging down over his forehead, the 18-year-old Takefusa Kubo looks an unlikely superstar. But journalists were falling over themselves to get a few words from his mouth.
It is the life Kubo will have to get used to, for he is now the great hope of his nation and potentially a central part of Real Madrid’s future.
Despite Japan’s 4-0 loss to a Chilean side featuring Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal, the little No.10 had acquitted himself well.
There were some lovely velvet touches around the edge of the opposition area and a thoroughly entertaining nutmeg on the baffled ex-QPR man Mauricio Isla. And in the second half, he produced a moment of wonderful composure, when he burst forward, then halted, just long enough for his team-mates to catch up, before flicking it out wide for Shoya Nakajima to cross first time.
That momentary stop – la pausa, they call it in Spanish – and silky style will surely ingratiate him to the Madrid crowd and suit La Liga.
Wataru Funaki, a journalist covering the Copa América for the Japanese website Football Channel, says: “[Kubo] can always play calmly in the final third.
“Also, he has excellent discernment which is not common in young players. We’ve seen many amazing moments by Take. He always makes many choices that we can’t imagine, creating assists and goals.”
That he plays in that way, though, should come as little surprise. After all, this is a player who spent four years, from 2011-2015, in the academy of Real’s biggest rivals, Barcelona.
The Catalan club were forced to let him go when they were punished by FIFA for signing underage players and he returned to finish his development with Tokyo FC.
Barcelona reportedly wanted him back this summer – he is now free to move having turned 18 – but Real were more decisive in their approach.
With the arrivals of Brazilian pair Vinicius Jr. and Rodrygo, it seems to have become a deliberate club policy to invest heavily in young talent, especially when it means that that talent doesn’t go to Barça.
Whether it is one-upmanship or sensible planning for the long-term, they now have another well-prepared and technically able player on their hands.
As he showed in the mixed zone of the Morumbi, Kubo speaks fluent Spanish, managing to respond eloquently, if a little apprehensively, as Brazilians bombarded him with questions in their inimitable mishmash of Spanish and Portuguese.
With the Japan team’s press officer desperately trying to avoid him answering any questions about his move to Madrid, someone asked him to name his favourite Brazilian. “Ronaldinho,” he said, after pausing to think.
Yet it is with another Barcelona magician that Kubo is most often compared. “The Japanese Messi dribbled more than the original in his Copa América debut”, read the headline in Brazilian sports daily Lance! the following morning.
As a small, skilful, left-footed attacking midfielder who spent a long time at La Masia, the parallels are inevitable.
According to Funaki, though, the comparison is not one that Kubo enjoys.
“He doesn’t like being called ‘Japanese Messi’. He always said, ‘I’m not Messi. He is him. I am me. We are completely different and have our own characters.’ If I had to choose a player, his style of playing is more similar to Bernardo Silva than Messi.”
Kubo, Funaki continues, has come on a lot over the last 12 months, both for Tokyo FC and now the full national team.
“He was not a main player for FC Tokyo until last season,” he says. “After returning from loan [at Yokohama F.Marionos], his standpoint completely changed.
“The most important reason is his mentality. He grew up from just a kid to an adult. He got four goals and four assists in 13 games as a right-sided midfielder.”
Yet excelling at Real Madrid is an entirely different proposition. Like Vinicius Jr. was when he arrived, one imagines that Kubo will be sent to Real Madrid Castilla, the Spanish giant’s B team, to get used to his new surroundings and get some playing time under his belt.
“I think Real Madrid is the most difficult club in the world,” says Funaki, “To get promoted to the top team, he has to get over many big walls. For example, getting and keeping a regular position in Castilla, scoring more goals and learning about how to be a true professional.”
“He has such a big potential and talent you saw in Copa América,” he continues, “I can imagine he will play in Primera División or another top league in the near future.
“I’m not sure he can get into the first team at Real Madrid, but I hope so. I believe he will become a world-class player and can help the Japan national team for a long time.”
By Joshua Law