Soccer

'Japanese Messi' Takefusa Kubo set for Copa America debut

AFP-JIJI, AP

On a continent where “imitation” Galacticos are a dime a dozen, Takefusa Kubo could just be the real deal.

Snapped up by Real Madrid on Friday from under the noses of some of the world’s other top clubs, the teenage sensation is about to demonstrate why he is known as the “Japanese Messi” at the tender age of 18.

The youngster, described by Real as one of the most promising players in world soccer, is set to create a buzz at this month’s Copa America in Brazil after earning his first senior callup for Samurai Blue.

Rarely does an Asian football tournament go by without a “Thai Zico,” an “Iraqi Cristiano Ronaldo” or even a “North Korean Wayne Rooney” among the team rosters.

But it was Kubo who as a scrawny 9-year-old was invited to Barcelona’s youth academy, where he earned his nickname because of his dribbling skills.

Though the Catalan giants were eager to retain him, Real Madrid took the plunge, heading off interest from Manchester City, Manchester United and Paris Saint-Germain.

The midfielder, signed from FC Tokyo, could come face-to-face with Argentina wizard Messi at the Copa America depending on results in the group stage.

Kubo is one of 17 uncapped players in coach Hajime Moriyasu’s new-look Japan squad, as the tournament guest looks to build for next year’s Tokyo Olympics, but is should attract the most interest by far.

The world’s biggest clubs have been tracking his progress since he appeared in the 2017 Under-20 World Cup — at age 15.

He became the youngest-ever to score in a J. League game earlier that year, which triggered the sort of hype once reserved for Japan greats Hidetoshi Nakata and Keisuke Honda.

Despite being a YouTube sensation as a pint-sized toddler, Kubo rejects the comparisons to Messi.

“I don’t like being compared to Messi,” he said. “But one day I hope to be able to play like him.”

Japan faces Chile in its first Copa America match in Sao Paolo on Monday.

Kubo, who could become the face of the 2020 Olympics, insists Japan’s “Baby Samurai” will go into the competition with no fear.

“Teams like Brazil will definitely be serious about winning,” he told local media.

“We will have to match the desire of our opponents when we get on the pitch.”

Kubo’s former club manager Kenta Hasegawa backed the midfielder to seize his chance to shine on the world stage.

“Takefusa doesn’t need a babysitter, he has matured a lot,” the FC Tokyo boss told Japanese media.

“This kind of opportunity might only come around once in a lifetime — he will only benefit from the experience.”

While Kubo and Japan get started on Monday, the actual Messi begin the tournamnet on a sour note, with Argentina losing to Colombia 2-0.

James Rodriguez set up Roger Martinez’s opening goal in the second half with a superb long pass across the pitch, and substitute Duvan Zapata scored late to seal the victory that allowed Colombia to end a 12-year winless streak against the Argentines.

Messi couldn’t do enough to spark Argentina, which lost its first Copa America match since the 2007 final against Brazil. It was also the team’s first opening defeat in the tournament since 1979.

“Our best player was the entire team,” said Colombia coach Carlos Queiroz. “The next match will certainly be more difficult, this is only the beginning.”

Both Argentina and Colombia are trying to end title droughts, with the Argentines winless since the 1993 Copa America and the Colombians without a trophy since the 2001 edition.

Argentina lost the finals of the World Cup in 2014 and the Copa America in 2015 and 2016, where it lost both of the latter in penalty shootouts against Chile.