Tuesday, 30 April 2019

'Japanese Messi' Kubo ready for European return after premature Barcelona exit

With a nickname like "the Japanese Messi", Takefusa Kubo has a lot to live up to.

The 17-year-old forward is set to make headlines in the coming weeks as the one-time La Masia gem prepares to make his return to Europe following a tumultuous few years.

Kubo was picked up by Barcelona at the age of 10 and brought to Catalunya with the hope that he would blossom into first-team star at Camp Nou, and perhaps even aide with the transition into a post-Messi world.

And yet for the past three years he has been back in his native Japan, largely hidden from the gaze of European football fans after he unwittingly became embroiled in the Blaugrana's transfer irregularities and was de-registered when they were handed a transfer ban by FIFA in 2015.

"I wasn’t picked to play in games," he recalls of his final months in Spain during an exclusive interview with Goal . "Although I wasn’t playing in games I still had to go to the matches, just watching my team-mates playing. They were winning the games but I couldn’t be totally happy.

"At first, I really didn’t want to come back [to Japan]," he continues. "I was so used to living there and also felt comfortable in the team, so I wondered ‘why?’. I made so many efforts to get used to living over there, and I was afraid that I had to do it all over again. However, despite my worries, I fitted into life in Japan very quickly when I was back, so that was good."

Fitting back into life is an understatement when it comes to football. Having originally signed with FC Tokyo's youth team, he was quickly promoted to the senior squad. At the age of 15 years, five months and one day he became the youngest player in J.League history. Five months later he added the youngest goalscorer in J.League history record to his list of honours.

Such records did not necessarily translate to regular first team football, but an impression had been made. A spell out on loan at Yokohama F. Marinos in 2018 offered him a further opportunity to train alongside and play against senior professionals, and he has this season become a regular in the FC Tokyo starting line-up.

His performances saw him named in Goal's NxGn list of the top 50 teenage talents on the planet in March, and suggestions are that a return to Europe, and perhaps even Barcelona, are merely weeks away.

Goal understands that Barca made a promise to Kubo that they would continue to follow his progress given he was the most talented of those who were forced to leave La Masia four years ago, and they are not about to renege on that vow. An offer is set to be made with the proviso that he would likely start out life within the Barcelona 'B' side or even out on loan elsewhere in Spain or further afield in Europe, but a spanner could yet be thrown in the works.

Real Madrid have reportedly emerged as a rival suitor to their Clasico opponents while Paris Saint-Germain have been mooted as another potential destination in some quarters. What is for sure is that Kubo's future lies with one of Europe's biggest clubs.

"When it comes to football, I always want to aim at the top," he says. "I am most looking forward to what I will do in the future myself, and intend to spare no effort for that. I look forward to seeing my potential, and try to climb up the ladder one step at the time, one by one."

But does he have any preference when it comes to a club?

"Of course. I would love to play within the top European leagues. It has always been my target since I was little to play with players of a higher standard at a higher level. I don’t know which league will be the highest level when I move, but I hope I will be a player who’s playing in the best league.

"I want to be a player who is demanded by the best team, and hope to go to that team. However, it's not a bad idea to join the second best and take part in defeating the best one first.

"To be honest, I feel very comfortable staying in Japan right now. I sometimes even think ‘I hope Japan is the top league in the world’. But the reality is it is not. There are higher level leagues in the world, and I want to grow so I can go there. I want to keep that kind of attitude.

"I am not satisfied with the current situation at all. I am still incomplete. I don’t usually speak like this, but I’m still a 17-year-old player. There is much more to come. I must believe my future is bright, and do my best to grow further."

While Kubo is not sure where his immediate future will take him, there is one team whom he has plenty of admiration for right now: Barcelona's Champions League semi-final opponents, Liverpool.
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"The team I think play the most interesting football is Liverpool," he admits. "I feel they are awesome when I watch their games. It’s not really to say they are my ‘favourite’, but more like ‘awesome’.

"I like fast and skilful players. All the big teams have these types of players, and when I watch them I feel they are awesome. I am not very fast, so I really like players who possess overwhelming speed. I also like Douglas Costa at Juventustoo. Those players make me feel ‘Wow, awesome!’."

Awesome may well be the buzzword when it comes to describing Kubo in the not too distant future as he inevitably makes his way back to European football. The next superstar of Asian football is set to become a lot more familiar to western audiences in the coming years, and not before time.


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