The fans at Tokyo's Ajinomoto Stadium hold their breath in anticipation. The average crowd for a weekday match at this Japanese stadium is just over 7,000. 19,123 turn up that day. Photographers clamour for a picture, while five TV stations show up out of the blue. Never mind that this was just a Levain Cup match. On a Wednesday. This was no ordinary day.
The match between FC Tokyo and Consadole Sapporo is just a sideshow. The main spectacle for most of the fans and the assembled media is Takefusa Kubo. Or as they call him in Japan, and increasingly the world over, the Japanese Messi.
The world of football is littered with teenage players branded as the 'Next Messi' or the 'Asian Ronaldo'. But anyone who's seen Kubo will tell you they can see where the nickname comes from. Just like the original deal, he's short and nifty.
But there's another reason behind the Messi comparison: he has spent a part of his childhood at Barcelona's famed La Masia after Barcelona discovered him at the age of nine at a training camp they had in Yokohama. And while he had return to his homeland due to a transfer ban slapped on the Catalan outfit by FIFA in 2014, he is expected to join the club when he turns 18.
In the meanwhile, Kubo has steadily been making headlines in his home country. The youngest scorer in the J.League. The second youngest player — at 15 years, 10 months and 30 days — to play in the J.League.
The Japanese Messi
Not to mention that he was picked for the Japan U-20 squad which competed in the FIFA U-20 World Cup, which was held in South Korea in May.
While that challenge was ended by Venezuela at the last-16 stage, the 16-year-old will be in action in India when the U-17 World Cup kicks off in October. And unlike the U-20 squad, Kubo will not be given a peripheral role, as the AFC U-16 Championship last year proved.
Powered by Kubo's brilliance, Japan dominated their group, which consisted of teams like Vietnam, Australia and Kyrgyz Republic, scoring 21 goals and conceding none. They showed a penchant for scoring goals in the second half and went for 360 minutes in the AFC U-16 Championship without conceding a goal. Not just the group phase, they even dominated their quarter-final encounter against UAE.
The 1-0 margin of victory belies the quality of football they showed in the match to earn qualification into the World Cup. A heartbreaking 2-4 defeat to eventual winners Iraq in the next round ended their campaign, but not before they has reiterated their credentials as Asian football's powerhouse. After all, in October Japan will be featuring in their eighth FIFA U-17 World Cup, having reached the quarter-finals twice.
The AFC technical report for the U-16 Championship pointed out that Japan's 4-4-2 formation put a lot of emphasis on "discipline and tactical maturity" before adding that the Japanese team like to construct moves patiently while retaining possession rather than going for long balls to the striker. One thing that stood out about Japan at the tournament was that they were not a one-trick pony. They scored five of their goals after a forward beat the offside trap and latched on to a through ball while five goals came through sheer individual brilliance and three came from long-range shots.
The report also noted that while on the attack, the Japan players displayed "intelligent off-the-ball movement to provide passing options" while in defence the players formed a "disciplined, compact block which often holds a high line".
The report, co-authored by the AFC technical team comprising of Iran's Morteza Mohases, Jose Ariston Caslib of Philippines and AFC Technical Director, Andy Roxburgh, observed that the team was particularly dangerous in set plays and lauded the players' high level of technique, fitness and concentration.
But as they learned in Goa last year, sometimes you need much more to succeed at the international stage. And as any Argentinean will tell Japan, sometimes even having a Messi in your ranks doesn't guarantee silverware.
Updated Date: Sep 28, 2017 15:40 PM