FIFA U-17 World Cup: How a Japanese cartoon hero inspired legions of football players around the world

The country has a long history of animation, and has also played a part in popularising football among children. Yoichi Takahashi’s creation Captain Tsubasa is the most popular character

Written by Sriram Veera | Updated: October 12, 2017 8:27 am
FIFA u17 world cup, captain tsubasa, japan football, japan u17 world cup, Captain Tsubasa is a boy in love with football who dreams of winning the World Cup for Japan.

Not being a polyglot, one props up the phone with loaded images at Taisei Miyashiro, the 17-year-old Japanese forward. The Chinese phone flickers up with cartoon figures of an extremely popular Japanese pop-culture character ‘Captain Tsubasa’.

Miyashiro’s face creases into a lovely little smile, and he pops out: “Tsubasa!” For the last two hours, he had kicked the ball around in the heavy Guwahati rain, faced a barrage of questions from a large Japanese press pack, and that was the first real boyish smile from him. And why not?

Captain Tsubasa is a cute figure from Manga – Japanese comic and graphic books, created in 1981, a generation before Miyashiro, but has transcended the imagination of even its creator Yoichi Takahashi. In 1983, it was casted as anime on television, and been translated and broadcasted all over the world. In the Middle East, kids know him as Captain Majed. In North America, he is Flash kicker. In South America, his show was called Supercampeones. In Europe, the wondrous football anime star was named Oliver. It’s a human story of someone learning about life values- a coming-of-age story.

Fernando Torres, the Spanish great, once said: “I started playing football because of this.” Ditto Franscesco Cocco and Alessandro Del Piero, who treasures a signed drawing from Takahashi. Lukas Podolski, who plays in Japan these days, is a great fan, even playing with a boot that has a huge imprint of Tsubasa.

FIFA u17 world cup, captain tsubasa, japan football, japan u17 world cup, Fernando Torres had said that Captain Tsubasa was the reason he started playing football. (Source: File)

No surprise then that it’s most popular in Japan. Hidetoshi Nakata, the first Japanese success in Europe, doesn’t watch football even now. He never did as a kid. It was Tsubasa who ensnared him, and made him want to copy the moves. Players from Zinedine Zidane to Ronaldinho have talked about the influence of the character in their football development.

But all that was in the past. What about now? Does he still continue to inspire kids to become footballers? Even the Japanese team staff aren’t sure whether Captain Tsubasa has had any effect on the current U-17 kids, but one question is allowed to be sneaked in. And Miyashiro’s answer kills all doubts.

“When I was a boy, I loved the character and wanted to play like him. As I grew older, I realised I can’t copy those difficult moves!” Laughter. Same sentiments are expressed by another player Okuno Kohei, who says not only did he start playing football because of the anime, but would also try the shots in training. It made him fall in love with football.

Captain Tsubasa is a boy in love with football who dreams of winning the World Cup for Japan. At the start of the series, he was 11, and 36 years later the series is still going strong – Tsubasa is now 22, and plays for Japan and FC Barcelona. The World Cup is yet to be won. The series isn’t just about him – it has the very popular goalkeeper Wakabayashi (Benji in Europe) and other characters who all have their background stories etched out in great detail. It has signature shots from Tsubasa: heel lift cyclone, razor shot, off-the-bar overhead kick, drive shoot – the list goes on and the ball goes through astonishing curves, sometimes spins differently and basically defies science.

FIFA u17 world cup, captain tsubasa, japan football, japan u17 world cup, Japan U17 player Taisei Miyashiro said that he wanted to play like Captain Tsubasa when he was younger. (Source: AP)

In a shot skylab hurricane, two players push their legs together to propel one into the air to head the ball for a goal. No wonder poor Miyashiro said he couldn’t even copy. It has had another curious, and an astounding, effect on Japanese football. Tsubasa is a attacking midfielder, a playmaker in the mould of Diego Maradona, and for long Japanese kept producing midfielders. Keisuke Honda (AC Milan), Shinji Kagawa (Manchester United) and Makota Hasebe (FC Nurnberg) were all midfielders in the mould of Tsubasa. And even Japanese forwards like Hiroshi Kiyotake, Shinji Okazaki, Yoichiro Kakitani and Takashi Inui all played as midfielders for their respective clubs and only moved into attacking positions when playing for Japan.

So much so, that around 2002 when Japan hosted the World Cup, a corporate approached Takahashi to create a popular striker. And he came up with a classic Anti-Tsubasaa in Kanou Kyosuke in a series called Hungry Heart. Takahashi hoped it would create a legion of forwards, and going by the current set of teenagers, it seems to be working.

“Japan weren’t good in offence. I wanted them to have attacking strikers, and created Kyosuke.”

It’s a pity that Takahashi can’t speak English, and so one turns to Tom Byer, the American who revolutionised grassroots football in Japan, to talk about the influence of anime. “There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Captain Tsubasa was central in kicking football interest in Japan. Many of the kids in my clinics, in the 80’s and ‘90s’, would talk about it. I met him (Takahashi) the other night for dinner: a very nice humble man, who is pleased with what he has done and surprised how it has spread all over the world.”

It even inspired Byer to create football comic books, which proved to be a great success. “It was in the comics called Korokoro Komikko, hundreds of page with storylines from video games and my football strip. It was huge: a circulation of 1.2 million in the heydays.”

Which is huge but nothing in comparison to Captain Tsubasa that was serialised in the weekly ‘Shonen Jump’ and had 5 million at its pomp, and even now attracts a 3-million readership. “In France, football is played in leagues. In Japan, it’s in schools. It’s this close bond between sport and things like: links between friends, upper class and lower class, parents and all the heartful things that I wanted to capture in my manga,” Takahashi once said.

A baseball fan as a kid, Takahashi was first drawn to football in his high school when he watched the 1978 World Cup in Argentina. He was truly hooked, and three years later rolled out the football manga Captain Tsubasa. Before him, there were at least two other football mangas – The Red-Blooded Eleven and Shinji Mizushima’s Downtown Samurai, which came up after Japan won bronze at the 1968 Olympics but didn’t catch on much as the game itself didn’t flourish in the country.

Manga isn’t just restricted to sports or kids’ comics – it’s consumed by adults and has topics that vary from political, erotic, cultural, soap-opera-ish storylines, science fiction, poetry, history – the whole jazz basically. It’s generally seen as a post-Second World War phenomenon, but Tokyo professor Brigitte Koyama-Richard has dated it back to scroll-paintings in the 12th century in her book ‘One thousand years of Manga’.

Scholarly studies on Manga, and graduate school programmes are in place now in Japan. It’s Captain Tsubasa though that is the rage with the kids. “You can make it really dynamic. Much more than a photograph. You can create this flashy hyper-reality. I am inspired by elements from karate and pro-wrestling, take from sports other than soccer. It’s a comic about soccer – so you need rivals. Initial idea was to end up with all these rivals in Japan’s national team,” says Takahashi.

Like Kojiro Hyuga.Where Tsubasa was a gentle character from a upper-class background and a creative playmaker, Kojiro was from a poor family,with a strong personality and a very powerful kick.

Takahashi has said that he will continue drawing manga until he dies. Japanese football fans and players owe a lot to Takahashi and the wondrous Captain Tsubasa, whose motto is ‘The ball is my friend’.

Even as fans await the day Captain Tsubasa would win the World Cup for Japan, the reach has already gone beyond sporting boundaries. In May this year, Kassoumah Mhd Obada, a Syrian student studying in Japan, started translating the series in his native language, and it found its way to Syrian refugees who are beginning to devour it.

“Refugee children live in situations far away from a place where they can have dreams,” Obada says in an interview to Asahi. “I want to show them how wonderful it is to have a dream and strive for it just like Captain Tsubasa.”

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