Takefusa Kubo: Home at Last at Real Sociedad

Over the past few years, Japan has lurked in the shadows as one of the rising stars in international football. They’ve qualified for every World Cup since 1998, they’ve produced the likes of Shinji Kagawa, Maya Yoshida and Makoto Hasebe, and they’ve had their fair share of memorable performances on the world stage. Nevertheless, they haven’t been able to find a playmaker with the potential of delivering them to extraordinary heights. That is, until Takefusa Kubo came along.


The summer of 2019 was a game changer for Japanese football. Their Olympic side reached the Toulon Tournament Final, only to lose to a star-studded Brazil side on penalties. In addition, several Japanese youngsters got the stepping-stone transfers they needed to continue their development and push them to the next level.



Takehiro Tomiyasu joined Bologna, where he became a regular fixture in their Europa-chasing campaign before making the move to Arsenal. After an excellent performance in January’s Asian Cup, in which he led Japan to the Final, Ritsu Doan left Gronigen for PSV Eindhoven, later making his way to Freiburg. And in one of the plot twists of the summer, Kubo became the first Japanese player to ever sign for Real Madrid.


Growing up an only child in Kawasaki, Kubo fell in love with the beautiful game right from the very start. At the age of 7, he began playing for local club FC Persimmon, but his undeniable talent drew him away to two of the biggest academies in Japan — Kawasaki Frontale and Tokyo Verdi. He wasn’t satisfied though; he wanted a footballing education of the highest caliber, and to do so, he’d need to head for Europe.


Kubo tried out for Barcelona’s Soccer Camp in Japan, and won the MVP award for his sensational performances in the competition. A few months later, he was selected by Barcelona’s School team to participate in the Sodexo European Rusas Cup in Belgium. Once again, he won MVP for his performances; he had a unique ability to make defenders disappear in the bat of an eye.


Barcelona had seen enough; they wanted this guy tied down to their club. They invited him to try out for La Masia, and after passing with flying colors, he was sent to Barcelona’s Aleví C team (U-11). In his first full season (2012/13), he topped the scoring charts with a whopping 74 goals in 30 games. He gradually worked his way up the ranks, earning the “Japanese Messi” moniker for his phenomenal performances at youth level. Things were going well, until they suddenly weren’t.



In 2014, Barcelona were found guilty of breaching FIFA regulations in signing underage players. Kubo was one of several La Masia players who were declared ineligible due to the club’s violation of Article 19 of FIFA’s transfer regulations. Along with the likes of André Onana and Lee Seung-woo, he was prohibited from playing for Barcelona until he was 18, and as a result, he was forced to restart his development back home in Japan, signing with FC Tokyo.


Immediately, Kubo was registered with the Tokyo first team, and a month before his 16th birthday, he made his professional debut in the J. League Cup. Despite being one of the youngest players in the tournament at 15, Kubo impressed in the U-20 World Cup. In the first group stage match against South Africa, Kubo came on as a sub and immediately made an impact, linking up with Doan to assist the winning goal. Japan would go onto the quarterfinals, where they would lose to the eventual champions England.


Barcelona continued to monitor his progress in Tokyo, and Kubo kept in touch with the club, attending their games whenever they’d come to Japan, and jetting off to Catalunya whenever he could to visit his former teammates. In January 2018, he returned to La Masia for a few days and trained with players 1-2 years his superior, and wowed everyone with his speed, intelligence, and finishing ability.


Chelsea, Real Madrid, and Paris Saint-Germain all lusted over his signature, but Kubo and his family made it loud and clear: they only wanted Barcelona, and they were willing to wait. Kubo bided his time, alternating between FC Tokyo’s U-23s and first team, before moving to Yokohama F-Marinos on loan. His first goal in league play came against Vissel Kobe; he scooped up the ball on the edge of the box, and volleyed it past Kim Seung-gyu.


Player Analysis: Mikel Oyarzabal


With the clock ticking before his 18th birthday in June, Kubo looked destined to return to Barcelona and become the first ever Japanese player to play for the Blaugranas. Mundo Deportivo even reported in February 2019 that Kubo had reached an agreement to play for Barcelona B the following season.


On May 12, Kubo scored his first league goal for Tokyo, a powerful half-volley to snatch away three points against Jubilo Iwata. He grabbed another goal the following week against Sapporo, leading Tokyo to the top of the table. Hajime Moriyasu rewarded his excellent form with a maiden call-up to the Japanese senior team, the teenager flying to Brazil for the summer’s Copa América.


It seemed as though everything was going to plan for the prodigal son’s return, until it wasn’t. Kubo had changed agents, from Arturo Canales — who represented Gerard Piqué, Ivan Rakitić, and Samuel Umtiti at the Catalan club — to Roberto Tsukuda and Manel Ferrer. Kubo’s new representation demanded a first team contract and an annual salary of €1 million, something Barcelona wasn’t willing to provide. The Catalans fell out of the race, and after beating out interest from Manchester City and PSG, Real Madrid emerged from the pack to win the race for the Japanese starlet.


Kubo signed for Real Madrid on a five-year deal, although he was initially registered with their youth side, due to Federico Valverde, Éder Militão, Vinícius Júnior and Rodrygo occupying the non-EU spots. Nevertheless, he inked a contract that landed him a net salary of €1.2 million, far above Real Madrid Castilla’s median salary of €130,000. Barcelona, on the other hand, offered an annual wage of €250,0000.



After impressing for Japan in the Copa América, Kubo jetted off to North America for Real Madrid’s preseason tour, where he would face off against the likes of Atlético Madrid and Bayern Munich. Rather than stay in the capital and play in the third division, though, Kubo joined the recently promoted Mallorca to try his luck in the Primera. Whilst he wasn’t able to prevent them from dropping down, he nevertheless emerged as a bright spot in attack for the Balearic side.


Against Real Betis, he wreaked havoc on the right flank and forced a draw. For the first goal, he cut inside only to have his shot blocked, and the rebound was converted by Cucho Hernández with a powerful strike. For the second, he made an overlapping run for Cucho, and slotted in an assist for Ante Budimir. For the third, he rode a strong challenge from Marc Bartra, hesitated, and smashed a shot behind Joel Robles for the equalizer. 


Against Deportivo Alavés, he started on the bench but changed the game after coming on as a substitute for Alex Feibas. Operating on the left flank this time, he found Cucho for the opening goal, and Mallorca held on to claim a vital three points. Whilst Kubo wasn’t able to consolidate a starting spot under Vicente Moreno, with the lightweight youngster often struggling to cope with the rough challenges that came at the top level, he did provide a sense of unpredictability and creative spark to a Mallorca side that mainly sought to drop deep and soak up the pressure.


An unpredictable, divinely gifted player, who can chop up a defense with the ball glued to his left foot, who can change a game in the blink of an eye, and whose mind happens to work even faster than his legs, Kubo’s talents haven’t always been appreciated the way they should be. He struggled to convince on loan at Villarreal and Getafe the following season before returning to Mallorca, but in July 2022, he elected to say goodbye to the loan life and cut ties with Real Madrid, becoming the first Japanese player to join Real Sociedad.



Kubo hasn’t looked back, racking up 9 goals and 7 assists in 35 league appearances and cementing a starting spot under Imanol Alguacil, mainly playing as a right winger but also operating as a second striker, a left winger, attacking midfielder and center forward. His versatility and technical brilliance proved essential for La Real as they finished fourth and ended a decade-long drought from the UEFA Champions League. Today, they sit sixth in the table, seven points behind Basque rivals Athletic Club.


He came out on the losing end against his former side in the Copa del Rey semifinals as Mallorca booked their ticket for Sevilla with a penalty shootout victory, but he has nevertheless continued his positive development at Real Sociedad with 7 goals and 3 assists in 27 league appearances. Over the past 18 months, Kubo has played in a World Cup for Japan and started in seven of their eight matches in Europe’s premier competition. La Real finished atop their group with an unbeaten record against Inter, Benfica and Red Bull Salzburg, only to come undone in the Round of 16 vs. PSG.


After bouncing around Spain, Takefusa Kubo is finally finding stability and consistent game-time at Anoeta and proving why he belongs in the conversation as one of the hottest prospects in La Liga. Real Sociedad protected their asset by extending his contract through 2029, but with a €60 million release clause, it may only be a matter of time before he becomes the latest Real Sociedad player to secure a big-money move after Alexander Isak, Álvaro Odriozola and Diego Llorente.


By: Zach Lowy / @ZachLowy

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Adam Pretty – FIFA