Soccer | From the Spot

Takefusa Kubo's pathway to Europe coming into focus

by Dan Orlowitz

I last wrote about FC Tokyo midfielder Takefusa Kubo in this column a little over three months ago, reflecting on his impressive performance against reigning champion Kawasaki Frontale on the J. League’s opening day.

He’s only gotten better, netting four goals and making an additional four assists in 13 appearances for league-leading Tokyo, which sits six points ahead of Kawasaki and Yokohama F. Marinos.

In the past two weeks, Kubo has experienced a series of milestones. First was his selection to the Samurai Blue for this week’s friendlies as well as the upcoming Copa America. Then came his appearance on the cover of Sports Graphic Number, along with the understated headline “Legend of the Prodigy.”

Saturday marked Kubo’s first multiple-goal game as the boy wonder netted twice against Oita Trinita, the first on a lively solo run that likely had Japan boss Hajime Moriyasu salivating.

But Tuesday was perhaps the most momentous day of Kubo’s career thus far: He celebrated his 18th birthday and is thus able to move to a European club.

It was a day that fans have been anticipating since four years ago, when nearly a dozen players — Kubo included — were forced to leave Barcelona’s famed La Masia youth academy after FIFA sanctioned the Spanish club for violating regulations regarding the signing of underage players.

One of the persistent rumors that has followed Kubo throughout his time in Japan is that Tokyo has maintained a “gentlemen’s agreement” with Barca and would not stand in the way of Kubo’s return to his former club once he turned 18.

Tokyo chairman Naoki Ogane has regularly pushed back at these claims, most recently in April when he refuted media reports that a deal for Kubo’s transfer had been made.

“We haven’t signed anything with Barcelona, and at this point we haven’t had any negotiations with Barcelona,” Ogane said on April 14. “I don’t know who (Kubo’s) manager is … as far as our understanding goes, he doesn’t have one.”

While it’s unclear whether that last statement is truthful, Tokyo has certainly been free to negotiate Kubo’s future so long as he’s been under contract.

“There is no prohibition on representatives, clubs or the player negotiating an international transfer while a minor,” international sports attorney James Kitching told From the Spot. “The prohibition is on (the transfer) itself — effectively, the transfer of an International Transfer Certificate from one FIFA member association to another FIFA member association.

“(Ogane’s) comments may have been dictated by the fact that Article 7.8 of the FIFA Regulations on Working with Intermediaries prohibits any payments to intermediaries engaged by minors.”

Given the circumstances which landed Kubo at Tokyo, the club can’t be faulted for its caution. Tokyo’s reputation will also benefit from having safely shepherded Kubo through adolescence and into the waiting arms of a top European club.

That does not mean, however, that Ogane’s statement was true. Spain’s Mundo Deportivo reported a year ago that Kubo was represented by Spanish agent Arturo Canales, but he is now listed as a client of Sports Consulting Japan, the agency run by Nikkei Argentine Roberto Tsukuda.

Tsukuda negotiates on behalf of some of Japanese soccer’s biggest names, including Yuto Nagatomo, Shinji Okazaki and Shunsuke Nakamura. Fluent in multiple languages, he’s known for having engineered a series of blockbuster overseas moves, but is regarded by some as a controversial figure with a reputation for stirring up transfer hype.

Signs of Tsukuda’s possible work are visible in coverage of Kubo’s transfer saga by the Japanese press. On Monday, Sponichi reported that negotiations with Barcelona had stalled and that Paris Saint-Germain had prepared a nearly ¥1 billion war chest to acquire him.

One day later, an “unnamed official” told Sponichi that Real Madrid had joined the race, tabling a contract length and salary exceeding Barcelona’s offer. Other outlets added Manchester City, which this winter signed Olympics-eligible defender Ko Itakura from Vegalta Sendai, to the mix.

The question of these reports’ veracity aside, the PSG narrative has some heft to it. The club established a Japanese-language Twitter account in April and has also been linked to Al-Duhail midfielder Shoya Nakajima.

Jonathan Johnson, who covers PSG for ESPN, told From the Spot that Kubo could inherit the role of the club’s aging Argentine attacker, Angel Di Maria.

“I reckon that Kubo would be a substitute at best, at least at first, but it does appear as if PSG are pushing to rejuvenate their ranks,” said Johnson. “I am curious to know if Nakajima plays any role in PSG’s future plans as a potential compatriot, with quality of his own, to help Kubo settle.”

Kubo, for his part, continues to demonstrate the unflappability that allowed him to succeed in Spain as a 10-year-old and could help him live up to his media-awarded nickname of “the Japanese Messi.”

“Sometimes I’d like to see who I am 10 years from now,” Kubo told Number. “But you can’t just skip that time, and I don’t think there are any shortcuts.

“I’ve played at each level for the national team, and the older I get the further we travel, the stronger our opponents become and the bigger the tournaments are. But the uniform I wear doesn’t change, and the feeling of playing with an unfamiliar squad is still unique.

“There are lots of strong players who can’t get regular national team call-ups, and that’s not something that happens with your club. So you’ve got to work hard and keep leaving your mark.”