Takuhiro Nakai: 'The Japanese Iniesta' emerging at Real Madrid

Takuhiro Nakai NXGNGoal

While there are certainly off-field reasons for signing young talent from east Asia, there are also a number of potential superstars emerging at European clubs.

From a Japanese perspective, Takefusa Kubo is undoubtedly the leader when it comes to building the country's next generation of footballing talent, and as such Real Madrid were thrilled to win the race for the forward in the summer of 2019.

Many expected Kubo, AKA 'The Japanese Messi', to return to Barcelona, four years after he was released by La Masia as the Blaugrana were banned from registering overseas players by FIFA.

But the holder of countless J-League records instead landed at Santiago Bernabeu, and though the 19-year-old has endured underwhelming loan spells this season with Villarreal and, currently, Getafe, there is still a belief that he will grow into a player of some repute at Madrid.

He is not the only young Japanese wonderkid on Madrid's books, however.

Takuhiro Nakai has been with the Blancos since 2014, and over the past year or so has begun to be spoken about as a potential first-team star for the Spanish champions.

Despite having only turned 17 in October, the playmaking midfielder has already trained with Zinedine Zidane's first-team squad, and there is genuine excitement regarding his potential at Valdebebas, the club's training base.

Nakai arrived as a 10-year-old having been spotted by Madrid's scouts in Japan, and it was clear from the very start that he had what it took to make an impact with the European giants.

"He came for a trial with the Alevin B (Under-11) team, and I was impressed by his technical capabilities," Jose Manuel Lara, Nakai's first coach at Madrid, tells Goal.

"When he came up to Alevin A (U12s), I had the opportunity to train him and see that we had a boy with special talent."

Though Nakai certainly had the skills required to make it at Madrid, it was clear that he would need to go through an adaptation period.

Not only was he in a new country that has little in common with Japan culturally, but he also faced a challenge in terms of having the physicality to succeed in the European game.

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He was regularly the smallest member of the squad at each age-group, with Lara saying: "You could see a lot of progress, but we knew that we had to be patient. We had to take care of him so much because he was so small."

Though matching his opponents for size proved difficult, it did allow Nakai to develop other attributes, such as his positional understanding and ability to be a quick-thinker when under pressure.

"What best defines him is his intelligence, and his way of seeing and understanding football, hence his versatility," Nakai's agent, Alfonso Zapata of ICM Stellar Sports, tells Goal.

"All this is wrapped up with his exquisite technique. He has now grown a lot physically, and that is helping him."

As Nakai continues to develop both physically and in terms of his coaching, questions have begun to be asked regarding his best position.

Long thought of as an archetypal No.10, the teenager - who cites Luka Modric and Andres Iniesta among his footballing heroes - has recently found himself playing slightly deeper as a more rounded central midfielder.

During pre-season he was even tried out as a winger by legendary Madrid forward Raul, who now coaches the club's 'B' team, Castilla.

Nakai was summoned by the ex-Spain international to represent Castilla in a friendly ahead of the new campaign, and he clearly impressed, with Raul flagging the Japan youth international's potential to his former team-mate Zidane during the October international break.

Takuhiro Nakai NXGN GFXGoal

Twelve days before his 17th birthday, and some years after a video of him leaving Marcelo speechless with his skills went viral, Nakai trained with Real Madrid's senior squad for the first time.

He would spend a series of sessions with Zidane's group while a number of first-teamers were away with their countries, though he has since dropped back to continue his development with the Juvenil A (U19) and B (U17) teams as he aims to improve his ability in duels and learn his defensive responsibilities.

Away from the pitch he lives a quiet life in the Spanish capital, with his mother, sister Honoka and brother Akito having travelled with him from Japan to ensure he is able to enjoy a comfortable and familiar home life.

Now the focus from Madrid's point of view is to tie the teenager down to his first professional contract, with the dream surely to have him and Kubo take the field together for the first team down the line.

'The Japanese Messi' joined by 'the Japanese Iniesta'? That would really make Barcelona fans sick.

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