Takefusa Kubo's displays for Japan at the Copa América have added to the feeling at Real Madrid that they have finally snared the Asian star they have long been after.
In Takefusa Kubo, Real Madrid feel they have finally snapped up the Asian star they had been looking for for years. The 18-year-old returned to Tokyo yesterday with the Japan team, having performed at the Copa América in a way that has merely served to ratchet up the sense of excitement around him at the Santiago Bernabéu. The attacking midfielder is set to straddle the divide between Castilla and the first team, as part of a strategy that was also previously applied to Martin Odegaard: he will be included in the seniors' pre-season preparations, and will participate regularly in Zinedine Zidane's training sessions next term.
Announced right after Luka Jovic, Eden Hazard and Ferland Mendy had all been confirmed in quick succession, the signing of Kubo was one of the surprises of Madrid's summer transfer window - and a purchase that the LaLiga giants have real belief in. "How did Kubo do last night?" president Florentino Pérez could be heard asking on the day of Rodrygo Goes' unveiling at the Bernabéu. Bringing in Kubo is by no means just a marketing move, is the word within the club - and his Copa América displays have certainly backed that up. Indeed, but for a VAR decision to disallow his late goal against Ecuador, the teenager would have been responsible for sending the Japanese into the quarter-finals.
In Brazil, Kubo was clearly unfazed by having only made his international debut earlier this month, or by being the second-youngest player ever to represent the Samurai Blue. His 16 total attempted dribbles at the tournament is behind only team-mate Shoya Nakajima (17)... and a certain Lionel Messi (23). Since his days at Barcelona, Kubo has heard himself be dubbed the 'Japanese Messi' so many times that he appears to have little appetite left for such comparisons. "I don't like being talked about in the same breath as such a top, top player - and all I'm going to do is just focus on working my socks off," he told an interview - in impressively good Spanish - after Japan's defeat to Chile in Sao Paulo.
Adaptation to life in Madrid expected to be smooth
Japanese players have often found it difficult to settle into life in European football, but, when it comes to Kubo, this seems less likely to be a problem. "He's used to the way that elite clubs work in Europe, and the fact that he speaks the language so well will also be a help to him," is the message coming out of Valdebebas. His three years at La Masia will stand him in excellent stead at La Fábrica.
What is perhaps generating the most excitement at Real Madrid is seeing what first Castilla coach Raúl González Blanco, and then first-team boss Zidane, can do with a starlet who is growing with every game he plays. Before setting off for the Copa América, he scored four goals in his last four matches for FC Tokyo, and the feeling in his home nation is that they are witnessing the rise of a new emperor of the Japanese game. Speaking in the country's media this week, former Japan goalkeeper Nobuyuki Kawaguchi declared that Kubo has kicked on "from being a good player to a terrific one" and expects him to lead the national team "for the next decade". "He's the best in his age group," Japan great Kazuyoshi Miura, the first player from the nation to cross the Pacific and ply his trade in Brazil, added.
Clearly, Kubo also promises to boost Madrid's media impact, and serve as a marketing gold mine for the club, in a country that Los Blancos have not visited since playing two friendlies against Tokyo Verdy and Jubilo Iwata in summer 2005. Despite boasting a host of commercial partners in other Asian countries - Hankook in South Korea, ManBetX and China City Bank in China - the 13-time European champions do not currently have a single global or regional Japanese sponsor. Kubo's influence will surely change that...