FEATURE | World Cup One to Watch: Take Kubo

Tako Kubo feels lucky to be going to the 2022 World Cup with Japan. At the age of 15 years and 10 months, he became the youngest scorer in J1 League history and in 2019, he joined Real Madrid from FC Tokyo. It was a rapid rise to stardom.

Kubo’s journey to Real Sociedad in the breathtaking city of San Sebastián has been far from smooth. On his travels around Spain and the Balearic Islands, he experienced forgettable loan spells before eventually moving to the Basque club. He played just 13 times for Villarreal, where he failed to score and assist in 13 La Liga games.

Kubo was given another chance, this time at Getafe, where he once again failed to deliver. One goal and one assist in 18 games was not going to convince Real Madrid, who agreed to send him on loan to Mallorca for the second time last season.

It was now 2021-22 and he expected to finally kick on given the experience had he built up in the league. It was his fourth season in Spain’s top flight. On his return to Mallorca, he featured 28 times for the islanders, managing to conjure up just one goal and zero assists. 

Kubo’s first loan spell with Mallorca, in 2019-20, was more successful on a personal level as he netted four times and provided the same number of assists but it was not enough to keep Mallorca in La Liga, while his parent club, Real Madrid, won the league title.

This summer, strong interest came from the north of Spain. The Basque country was a place he hadn’t yet discovered. San Sebastián, one of the food capitals of the world, offers some of Spain’s finest cuisine and also some delightful footballers, including the exceptional David Silva.

New challenge at La Real

Real Sociedad have a 20-question test that they publish weekly on their official club website with members of their squad. In his own interview, Kubo appears cheerful, relaxed and fun, traits that can be reflective of his style of play. 

La Real’s 27-year-old goalkeeper Álex Remiro said: “We didn’t know he was so funny. He makes jokes and talks a lot”. Kubo himself had already warned about talking. “What do I like to do outside of football? Well, I like to talk, I like to talk a lot, about anything,” he revealed with a smile on the day of his presentation at the Reale Arena. “People tend to think I’m quiet, but that’s a lie,” he added.

The 20 questions bring out the funniest side of Kubo. He goes on to tell the club’s media channels that he would have liked to play with Ronaldinho, and that he prefers a bicycle kick to a ‘Panenka’. But also that he doesn’t like alcohol at all. “I have to tell you that I stick to Coca-Cola because I don’t drink alcohol. I don’t like beer,” he admits. 

He also draws a few laughs when asked if he plays an instrument. “I wanted to say piano, but as I don’t want to lie to you, I don’t play anything,” he replies, smiling. In an entertaining cameo away from the pitch, he is asked about a series and answers with the title of a film. “I can’t think of the name now, but there’s one called… I can’t remember… a long time ago I saw one I liked a lot, Contratiempo”. When asked about what he would take to a desert island, “I would take a fishing rod, water if possible, and a lighter”.

Joining Real Madrid after Barcelona

Madrid hailed the 18-year-old Kubo as “one of the most promising youngsters in world football”. He had already experienced life in Spain, in Catalonia precisely, having joined Barcelona’s famed La Masia youth academy at the age of nine, where he formed a lethal partnership with Ansu Fati. Nicknamed the ‘Japanese Messi’, Kubo was earmarked for a future at the Catalan club but returned to Japan after Barça were found guilty of youth transfer breaches and handed a 14-month transfer ban by FIFA.

Languages come up next as Real Sociedad fans got to know their new forward, a forward who has already worn the shirt of six La Liga sides. “I speak two and a half [languages]. Spanish, Japanese and a little bit of English, I can defend myself a little”. When asked about his family reference, “I was going to give you just one, but no, both my parents, because they both looked after me very well”. He also singles out his best-dressed team-mate at Real Sociedad. “I haven’t been here for too many days, but Robert (Navarro) has a little something”, he replies with a laugh. The Japan international goes on to admit that he likes to watch tennis “because everyone watches it here”, and that his favourite superhero is Spiderman.

At 21, he has 20 caps and one goal for Japan. But against Spain on December 1, he won’t be facing any of his Real Sociedad team-mates. Mikel Oyarzabal would have been involved but ruptured his ACL in March of this year and misses out for La Roja. Real Sociedad quartet Martín Zubimendi, Mikel Merino, Brais Méndez and Oyarzabal will all be watching Spain from home as they take on Japan and Kubo in Group E in Qatar.

His Spanish team-mates will have been impressed with his impact at La Real. Kubo has made the most dribbles for the club in 2022-23, and also has the most touches inside the penalty area. He likes to drive inside from a wide position, with the aim of finding space to strike.

“If it hadn’t been for these four months at Real, I wouldn’t be going to the World Cup.”

A four-month spell has been crucial in the exciting wideman being selected for Japan’s World Cup squad. Real Sociedad head coach Imanol Alguacil has given him responsibility, something he has craved after frustrating loan spells away from the Santiago Bernabéu.

Like with any young player, there will be bouts of inconsistency. Many forget he is still only 21. La Real will give him time, having signed him from Madrid on a deal until 2027.

Kubo recently took to Instagram after Real Sociedad’s league victory away to Sevilla, their last fixture before the break for the World Cup.

“Happy to be able to help the team in a very good victory before the break. Now I’m focused on the World Cup, which if it hadn’t been for these four months with my Real team-mates, coaching staff and medical staff, I wouldn’t be in the squad,” he wrote.

“I am very grateful to this team for trusting me, for making me better and for giving me this opportunity to represent my country in the best tournament at national team level,” he added.

He told France Football in the summer of 2020: “I play football with the sole intention of improving but on the pitch, I’m never shy. A player must express himself on the pitch.”

Take Kubo is finally playing regularly in La Liga and now has a chance to showcase his talent on the biggest stage of them all, where he will be aiming to express himself in front of his nation against a country he can call his second home. 

Kieran Quaile

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