Soccer | From the Spot

Teen prodigy Takefusa Kubo growing up fast as Europe awaits

by Dan Orlowitz

The roughly four-month countdown to the end of FC Tokyo midfielder Takefusa Kubo’s J. League career is ticking.

When it hits zero, which will likely be soon after his 18th birthday on June 4, the player who many believe can lead Japan to a podium finish at Tokyo 2020 — and perhaps, several years down the line, at a World Cup — will once again be able to play in Europe.

Kubo’s expected return to the Old Continent will come roughly 4½ years since his FIFA-decreed exile from Barcelona’s famed La Masia youth academy, where he had risen through the ranks and scored at will after joining at 10 years old.

Fortunately for Tokyo supporters, Kubo seems prepared to make the most of his remaining time with the capital club. He was arguably the star of the show in Saturday’s scoreless draw between Tokyo and Kawasaki Frontale at Todoroki Stadium, playing 77 solid minutes — his longest-ever appearance in the J. League’s first division — before coming off to applause.

It was Kubo’s first game back in the blue-and-red shirt following a half-season loan at Yokohama F. Marinos, during which he scored his first J1 goal and made his first start in Japan’s top-flight.

“In a word, he was fantastic,” Tokyo manager Kenta Hasegawa said of Kubo. “Ever since he was exposed to ‘the outside world’ at Marinos his mentality has changed from that of a child to that of an adult.

“Physically speaking, he’d lose the ball or get knocked down last season, but now he can move the ball and create turnovers. It’s incredible to think about how much he’s improved in one year.”

Kubo’s physical transformation — this year’s player guide lists him at 173 cm and 67 kg, an increase of 6 cm and 7 kg from when he was registered to Tokyo’s top team in September 2016 — has certainly not hurt his performance.

“Last year when he played (in the J1), the other players had to cover for him,” Hasegawa said. “I was once asked if it was like adults minding a child, but in the last year it’s changed. He’s shown a different ambition during camp and in training.

“(Kubo) is approaching the level of Ritsu Doan before he left for Europe. If he gets more (J1) experience and plays in the U-20 World Cup, Kubo will soon get calls from Europe.”

Doan is hardly the worst measuring stick for Kubo — the 20-year-old joined Groningen from Gamba Osaka in 2017 and set the Dutch first division on fire, recording nine goals and four assists in his debut and becoming a key part of Japan head coach Hajime Moriyasu’s plans.

But these two players are exceptions to the rule in the J. League, where teenage players rarely have opportunities to break into the starting lineup.

After all, while Kubo was a youngish 15 and Doan just short of 17 when they made their pro debuts (for FC Tokyo U-23 in the J3 and Gamba Osaka in the ACL, respectively), neither can yet hold a candle to the likes of Paris Saint-Germain striker Kylian Mbappe, who played a starring role in France’s World Cup conquest last summer at the age of 19.

Naohiro Ishikawa, the retired Tokyo legend who represented Japan at the 2004 Athens Olympics, believes Kubo’s dedication to improving his defensive skills is a sign that the youngster is ready to close that gap.

“(Kubo’s) attacking skills have always been strong, but in a short amount of time he’s worked very hard to absorb our club’s philosophy of attacking from a strong defense,” Ishikawa told From the Spot after Saturday’s draw. “It’s impressive that he’s picked that (defensive positioning) up in such a short amount of time and that will become a weapon for him.”

Perhaps Kubo has picked up tips on defensive positioning from Tokyo’s press officers, who since his top-team debut have frequently had to prevent hordes of photographers, reporters, and TV crews from mobbing a player not yet old enough to drive.

On Saturday he demonstrated incredible poise on camera and in the mixed zone, answering questions with a confidence players twice his age often lack. It’s that confidence which Ishikawa believes will drive the youngster forward.

“When I watch the Champions League, I see a lot of hard work on both sides of the ball, in that transition from attack to defense,” said Ishikawa. “Even if you’re a good, technically gifted player, you still have to defend.

“Takefusa understands that you need that sort of power to perform on that big stage. He knows that even if (defending) is not his forte, his potential will expand considerably if he can improve that skill. That’s true for our results, for him going to Europe and for his chances with the national team.

“I think he already has clear goals for his future, and he still takes the time to understand what he has to do in the present. I think he’s on the right path.”