Japanese ‘Messi’ Takefusa Kubo ready for the big time

Takefusa Kubo made his senior debut for FC Tokyo this week – at the age of 15.

There they were perched behind the goal; fifty photographers just waiting for the player’s entrance.

Outside there were five television stations each broadcasting from the stadium, one with a cutout mask of the player in question.

Inside the venue, the usual midweek league cup crowd of six to seven thousand had been trebled after this moment had dominated newspaper and online chatter for weeks and had the country’s football fraternity in a state of heightened expectation not seen for many years.

Where Kubo goes, crowds follow.

You would have thought that a major global superstar had just landed in the J.League but no, this was all for the likely debut of one of the most highly touted young players to have ever come out of not just Japanese, but indeed Asian football.

Afterwards, it took several security folk to keep the press pack at bay as 15-year-old Barcelona-reared prodigy Takefusa Kubo did indeed became the second youngest ever player to make his senior debut in Japan.

That came two days after he was named in his nation’s squad for the upcoming FIFA Under-20 World Cup – again, at the age of 15, putting him in line to be the second youngest player in the history of that competition.

And so, on a sunny spring afternoon the crowds and the assembled press pack flocked to western Tokyo and waited.

They got their wish in the 66th minute when the pint-sized Kubo – all 170 centimetres – made his entrance.

He trotted on to join his teammates – five of whom were at least twice his age – and with his very first touch had a shot blocked in a sign that already here was a player who belonged.

This though had been a moment long in the making after Kubo was spotted at a Barcelona training camp in his homeland at the age of eight and then joined the club’s famed La Masia setup in 2011.

In almost three seasons with the club he drew favourable comparison to the marks set by none other than Lionel Messi at the same age and after scoring at better than two goals a game in his first season at the club he was quoted as saying that he didn’t just want to be a good player but that he wanted to be the best player on the planet – a brash statement not usually heard from Japanese players at any age.

After another couple of goal-laden seasons with the Catalan team he was caught up in the international transfer ban handed to the club and forced to return to Japan in 2015.

He then joined the youth team of FC Tokyo and quickly made his way into the club’s Under-23 side (again at the age of 15) and has been a regular with the side that competes in Japan’s third division (J3).

Having regularly trained with the senior squad since the beginning of the current season, the club finally felt the time was right to unveil their prodigy and here he didn’t disappoint.

Right from the moment he arrived he was cajoling and pointing to far more experienced teammates where he expected them to run, where he wanted the ball played and where they should be positioned.

He worked hard in closing down passing lanes and harrying the ball away from dangerous areas, always a sign of a tactically astute player before looking completely at ease when he was on the ball.

With four minutes to go he collected the ball in space, drove straight towards goal before being brought down just outside the box to earn his team a free-kick.

Kubo in action for Japan’s U20 side.

There was no hesitation at all as he picked up the ball, placed it on the spot and motioned for his captain – current Japan international defender Masato Morishige, the team’s regular set-piece specialist – to leave it to him.

With the stadium hushed he shot found its way to the target, only to skim off the roof of the net as the match wound down and Tokyo won 1-0.

He didn’t score the goal that the crowd had come to see but neither did he disappoint; gliding effortlessly into space, always turning and scanning, searching for space and never once – outside of his diminutive frame that made it look as though a child had snuck onto the pitch in full kit – did he look out of place in a polished, professional performance.

Whilst all nations love the next big thing, Japan does this kind of adulation to a stratospheric degree but even there he already seems resigned to the expectation that will be placed upon his slender shoulders.

The eyes of the world will be upon him in the middle of the year at the U20 World Cup and then in a couple of years when he returns to Barcelona, as what appears will be a seasoned top-flight campaigner, there will be even greater pressure.

On this early evidence though the hype is real and the name Takefusa Kubo is one that all football fans in Asia – and beyond – will be hearing a whole lot more of before too long.