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Japan’s next great hope has taken his next big step.

Takefusa Kubo, the 18-year-old midfielder expected to feature for Japan at the Tokyo Olympics and for the Samurai Blue across many years beyond that, is officially returning to Europe, four years after FIFA sanctions forced him to leave Barcelona’s famed La Masia youth academy.

But he will not be returning to Barcelona, the club that scouted him at 10 years old, brought him to Spain and first put him on the radar of millions of fans.

Instead, Kubo has charted an ambitious course to Real Madrid, the richest club in the world and Barcelona’s biggest rival in the Spanish league.

A move to Barcelona would have come as a surprise to nobody. With footwork as clever as his decision making and a wicked shot to match, comparisons between the young boy from Kawasaki and Argentine superstar Lionel Messi were already a regular occurrence, to say nothing of what a return to Catalonia would have done. Now Kubo will be following in the footsteps of Xabi Alonso, Zinedine Zidane and David Beckham.

While it may yet be a while before Kubo steps onto the Santiago Bernabeu pitch, La Liga officials are already excited about what the move represents for both Spanish and Japanese soccer.

“Kubo is definitely one of Japan’s biggest promises,” said Octavi Anoro, who manages the league’s business developments in Asia, to The Japan Times. “For us, this signing shows that the level of Japanese players is growing year by year.

“Even if he will play on the (reserve) team, he will have the opportunity to learn from the best players such as Vinicius Junior, Eden Hazard and Sergio Ramos.”

It’s a bold move by both parties: Real has picked up one of this generation’s most promising young players and can take particular pleasure in having beaten its bitter rival to the punch, while Kubo will begin the first stage of his adult career with a five-year contract reportedly worth €1 million ($1.1 million) per season — a salary out of reach of all but the most veteran Japanese players in the J. League.

It’s hardly the first time Kubo has demonstrated his ability to keep up with players several years his senior. At 15 years old, he was registered to FC Tokyo’s U-18 squad and became the first junior high school student to earn top scorer honors at the 2016 Japan Club Youth (U-18) Football Championship. Months later, shortly before turning 16, Kubo was the youngest player to participate in the 2017 FIFA U-20 World Cup.

One wonders how far Kubo could have been developed at Barcelona had the club not been punished for violating FIFA’s rules regarding the international transfer of underaged players. It’s easy to imagine a path resembling that of Paris Saint-Germain star Kylian Mbappe, who made his professional debut just short of 17 for Monaco and became a World Cup winner with France last summer at 19.

But if Kubo was required to come home, he could have done worse than Tokyo, one of the J. League’s biggest clubs with an established track record of success in its youth academies. The presence of an U-23 team in the J. League’s third division offered Kubo a clear pathway, allowing him to transition to the pro game as he developed physically.

As club chairman Naoki Ogane admitted on Saturday night, Tokyo also offered Kubo exactly what he wanted: a contract that would only last until he reached adulthood.

“When he joined Tokyo, Kubo had a strong desire to play overseas, and in order to allow him to re-examine that possibility his contract was written to conclude on the day he turned 18,” wrote Ogane in a statement.

From the start, Kubo’s signing always felt like a devil’s bargain for the capital club, which took on the weighty responsibility of training one of Japan’s brightest young talents and protecting him from an onslaught of interest from domestic media, all while knowing that his departure date was practically set in stone.

Mission accomplished. Kubo flourished in Tokyo’s academy while the club’s media officers alternated between the roles of chaperones and bodyguards. In a notorious incident following Kubo’s May 2017 top-team debut for Tokyo in a J. League Cup game, even team mascot Tokyo Dorompa had to step in to protect the pint-sized player from a crush of photographers.

After struggling in his first professional campaign — a 2018 which included a half-year loan to Yokohama F. Marinos — a switch flipped in Kubo this offseason. The small boy who struggled to keep the ball in the final third had become a confident phenom, weaving his way through defenders and creating chance after chance.

In 13 appearances Kubo made four assists and scored four goals — the latter coming in his final four games for the club. As Tokyo entered the recent international break leading the league by six points, it’s no surprise that team officials made one last attempt to convince their best player to remain.

“Of course we made him an offer, but so did several other big (European) clubs,” Ogane wrote. “I’m told that given his growth and the way our season has progressed, a part of Kubo wanted to stay with us and contribute to a championship, but in the end he chose Real Madrid.”

While some argued that Kubo should indeed have stayed in the J. League for the remainder of the season, former Samurai Blue defender Atsuto Uchida argued that the prodigy has learned all he can in Japan.

“If there’s nobody in Japan who can play at the level of Real Madrid, you can’t raise a player capable of moving there, so I think it’s good for Kubo to make this move,” the Kashima Antlers right back told Soccer Digest. “If a student is good enough to get accepted to the University of Tokyo, you need a professor who can teach him properly.”

Kubo’s first professor certainly boasts established credentials. At Real Madrid Castilla, the club’s reserve team in the Spanish third division, he’ll be coached by Raul, the retired Real legend known as one of Spain’s all-time greatest players with over 300 goals scored in more than 700 total appearances for the club.

Should he pass the test and eventually make it to the senior team, the boy wonder who has already shown so much potential will set a new standard for the Japanese game.

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