It’s rarely easy to say goodbye.
That’s especially so in the J. League, where the celebration of players leaving to go overseas has turned into an annual event — along with a never-ending debate over whether much of it is deserved.
The honor guards, the video tributes, the speeches, the bouquets and the last lap around the pitch — all of it is packaged as a chance for supporters to express gratitude to a player who has made significant contributions to the club and will now carry its name out into the world.
But these ceremonies, when held for players who haven’t spent that much time at their club before taking the leap abroad, often run the risk of becoming excessively cloying appeals to emotion that aren’t necessarily deserved.
Saturday’s ceremony for the Real Madrid-bound Takefusa Kubo wasn’t the first time FC Tokyo has threaded this needle. It was in fact the club’s third go-around in the last decade.
In July 2010, the Cesena-bound Yuto Nagatomo stepped up to the mic, whipped out a pair of sunglasses, and greeted the crowd in Italian to raucous applause and good-natured booing from behind the goal.
In June 2015, Yoshinori Muto was so overcome by emotion that tears interrupted his speech, which followed his last game before joining Germany’s Mainz.
Those two campaigns ended in heartbreak — Tokyo was relegated for the first time in club history after that disastrous 2010 season, and fell just one win short of qualifying for the Championship Playoff in 2015.
Saturday’s affair featured far less hoopla, with no pre-game choreography such as the one performed for Muto. One reason is that Tokyo only announced Kubo’s ceremony 24 hours in advance, due to the uncertainty of his return from the Copa America.
The other is that, with Tokyo leading the league midway through the season, there wasn’t as much of a need to play up Kubo’s accomplishments.
The obligatory video retrospective of his time in Tokyo featured his youth team debut, his ascendency to the U-18 squad at just 15, followed by his J3, Levain Cup and J1 debuts and highlights of his remarkable performances this season.
It was, however, missing an important milestone — Kubo’s first J1 goal, which came in his debut for F. Marinos during last year’s half-season loan.
The thousands of Yokohama fans who stuck around for the ceremony at Ajinomoto Stadium did not appreciate this oversight, booing briefly.
That reaction inspired one of the most genuine moments of Kubo’s speech — after walking out to the center circle, he picked up the mic and turned to face the away end.
“I’ll talk to the staff myself (about the missing goal footage),” Kubo said to a wave of applause. “It was just half a year, but that I’m standing here today is largely thanks to my half season at F. Marinos and I have nothing but gratitude.”
Even for Kubo, who has grown from boy to man before our very eyes in his four-plus years in Japan, it was a startling display of maturity and perhaps an indication of why Real manager Zinadine Zidane wants a close look at the 18-year-old during the team’s upcoming U.S. tour.
That’s not to say there wasn’t any cynical commercialism surrounding Kubo’s departure — Tokyo unveiled a series of T-shirts, keychains and other bric-a-brac thanking the youngster for his time in the capital.
But all of it was downright subdued in comparison to Cerezo Osaka’s infamous sendoff for Yoichiro Kakitani just five years ago.
After a breakout 2013 season in which he scored 21 goals, expectations were high for Kakitani. He was, after all, a Cerezo academy product who inherited the club’s treasured No. 8 uniform from Shinji Kagawa, expected to star at the 2014 World Cup and make a big move overseas.
Instead he struggled under pressure, scoring just one goal for Cerezo before the World Cup break and making little more than a cameo appearance in Japan’s disastrous campaign in Brazil.
Kakitani’s move to Switzerland’s Basel was announced shortly after, and his final Cerezo appearance was hyped far more than was necessary, considering the team was facing relegation and the player had yet to win a single trophy.
As the club hawked ¥30,000 commemorative uniforms and ¥40,000 3D-printed figures celebrating Kakitani, his postgame speech betrayed a lack of confidence in himself, borne out of the season’s frustrations and his national team struggles.
“I want to become strong enough to return as a player deserving of the No. 8,” Kakitani told the crowd at Kincho Stadium with tears in his eyes. He wouldn’t, returning to Osaka after just two seasons in Europe.
His promise to return home stronger — one commonly heard from J. Leaguers going overseas in the early 2010s — isn’t heard as frequently these days, a sign that more Japanese players consider Europe as more of a destination than a temporary waypoint.
And as more young players follow Kubo and other Japan internationals out into the world, hopefully it will become easier for their clubs to say goodbye.
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