Who is Captain Tsubasa, hero of Spanish footballers? | Soccer

Spanish football fans may express their regional bias when asked about their favorite players.

The Catalans could say Andrés Iniesta or David Villa, and the people of Madrid, Iker Casillas or Fernando Torres.

Players, however, may tell you that their hero is not a former Spanish player or even a real person.

He is the fictional 11-year-old Japanese boy named Tsubasa.

“Captain Tsubasa” (known as “Oliver y Benji”, “Olive and Tom”, “Supercampeones” or “Captain Majid” in other parts of the world), is a manga series first published in 1981 by Japanese animator Yōichi Takahashi.

The series tells the story of Ozora Tsubasa (Oliver Atom) who dreams of becoming a professional footballer.

His journey begins on a primary school football pitch in Japan and takes him to São Paulo – the show is hugely popular in Brazil – and Barcelona ahead of the World Cup.

The TV anime series was launched in 1983. Known for its unrealistic yet jaw-dropping kicks, and sometimes long episodes, the series has sold over 80 million copies worldwide. Over the years, it has morphed into 15 serialized manga, nearly 20 video games, five TV series, and four movies.

Many Spanish footballing legends – including Iniesta, Torres, Villa – and others from around the world like Lukas Podolski, Alessandro Del Piero and Alexis Sanchez, have publicly traced their love of the game by watching Tsubasa as children.

“I started playing football because of that…I loved the cartoon. I wanted to be Oliver,” Torres has said in the past.

A train passenger plays the piano next to a stained glass window depicting ‘Captain Tsubasa in Saitama [Behrouz Mehri/AFP]

Torres and Villa, after playing for years in Europe, ended their careers in Japan.

Podolski made a move to Japanese club Vissel Kobe.

“Captain Tsubasa has always been one of my biggest inspirations since I was a kid. It’s an honor to support Japanese football manga and this unique culture,” Podolski said.

Today, Iniesta is the captain of Vissel Kobe.

So how did a child comic book character from football-indifferent 1980s Japan become the inspiration for future stars in an already football-mad Spain?

Japan and Spain have very different weights on the world football scene.

While Japan have established themselves as a regular qualifier for the men’s World Cups for the past two decades – their women’s team were world champions in 2011 – Spain are powerhouses and won the competition in 2010, as well as the Euros in 2008 and 2012.

Football was introduced to both countries at the same time, in the 1870s.

In Japan, a British Royal Navy officer named Archibald Lucius Douglas taught the sport to his students while working at the Japanese Naval Academy in Tokyo.

In Spain, football was popularized by migrant workers from the UK and Spanish students who had learned to play while on exchange in the UK.

Japan hosted their first official match in 1888 and Spain’s two years later.

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French football team Paris Saint-Germain during a reception at a hotel in Tokyo in 2022 [Toshifumi Kitamura/AFP]

But as the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium approached, Spain decided to assemble their first national team, while Japan waited a decade later and the trajectory of football in both countries began. to deviate.

By the late 1970s, they were on completely different levels. Japan had failed to qualify for the World Cup since the team’s inception in 1930, while Spain had qualified four times, including a fourth-place finish in 1950.

Takahashi’s Inspiration

Inspired by watching the 1978 World Cup in Argentina on television, Japanese host Takahashi decided he wanted that to change.

“I thought football was very interesting and I wanted it to become a popular sport in Japan. I wanted the national football team to become stronger. In this sense, I wrote this book for the Japanese public, explaining football in more detail,” Takahashi told Al Jazeera.

He began creating the cast of characters who would eventually become Captain Tsubasa, his friends, and their adversaries.

Bringing football to life in a country where it had existed for around 100 years but had not found its place would not be an easy task.

“Football was not so popular in Japan. But in the rest of the world, it has already taken root and people have been exposed to football culture since they were little,” Takahashi added.

Little did he know that his work would not only inspire children in Japan, but also a whole new generation of players in Spain.

Until 1983, the Spanish government operated only two central television channels and in 1990 three commercial channels were launched.

One of them was Tele5 who, after seeing the success of Captain Tsubasa in Japan, decided to bring the show to Spain. Captain Tsubasa was renamed “Oliver y Benji” and first appeared on Spanish television later that year.

Didier Montes, a sports communications professional who created a viral Twitter thread about Captain Tsubasa, said a move by Tele5 executive Antonio Pusueco was key to the show’s success.

“Usually the cartoons were on TV on weekend mornings or after school. But he thought about when the kids would be home and decided to take the risk and air Tsubasa just before dinner. , competing with the news,” Montes told Al Jazeera.

The experiment was a success. A 1990 article by El Pais listed viewership at 26.3% of national viewership after just two months.

“When we were kids, if you didn’t watch Tsubasa the day before, you couldn’t play with us at school the next day. You wouldn’t know anything about the last new shot that Tsubasa made,” Montes said.

Years later, some of these kids have become the most successful footballers in the world and often talk about Captain Tsubasa’s role in their love of the beautiful game.

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Spanish footballer Andres Iniesta, who plays for Japanese J-League club Vissel Kobe, kicks a soccer ball as Yoichi Takahashi, right, original author of Captain Tsubasa, looks on during a ceremony in Tokyo [Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP]

“Happy to play in Japan”

Iniesta, the captain of the Vissel Kobe, was a guest of honor at the grand opening of a Tsubasa-themed station in Tokyo.

“I remember the characters’ unique playstyles and I’m happy to play in Japan, where the anime was made,” he said in the past.

Until 2020, Villa also played for the same team. Even the team’s current manager, Miguel Ángel Lotina, is Spanish.

Luca Caioli, sports journalist and author of Torres, a biography of the former Spanish striker, said the show was important for ‘El Niño’ at an early age.

“All his friends I’ve talked to remember and can sing the jingle [to Captain Tsubasa]. When you’re five or six, you need a hero, and once you have one, you follow him,” Caioli told Al Jazeera.

Years later, knowing Torres’ dedication to spectacle, the president of Sagan Tosu (a J1 team) came to Madrid to meet him while the striker was at Atletico Madrid.

When they met, he presented the Spaniard with a drawing of Captain Tsubasa standing next to an animated version of Torres, signed by Takahashi himself.

Torres ended up ending his career with Sagan Tosu.

Captain Tsubasa has continued to inspire Spaniards, even those who didn’t grow up watching it when it first aired on TV.

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Takahashi draws an illustration while Mbappe, left, watches [Toshifumi Kitamura/AFP]

Takahashi said the show’s popularity can partly be attributed to the prevalence of reruns.

“It was shown overseas more often than in Japan, so I think the Iniesta generation players, as well as the current generation members, were influenced by animation when they were kids. I I’ve heard that when the World Cup or the Euros starts, Captain Tsubasa starts getting re-airs in Europe, so I think that cyclical exposure has been crucial to his popularity,” he told Al Jazeera.

Mauro Bravo, a 22-year-old Spaniard who plays in the United States for Major League Soccer’s Orlando City, has a tattoo of Tsubasa performing one of his signature hair-raising, backwards, covering his thigh.

“My family taught me to love football, but it was [Captain Tsubasa] it fascinated me. »

With players of his generation, it’s still very common to have watched the show growing up, Bravo said. His dedication to the show is not only rooted in a love for the sport, but in what he learned from watching it.

“It teaches you valuable lessons for life, like sportsmanship, dedication and how to be a good teammate.”

Gen Z star and France World Cup winner Kylian Mbappe wears Captain Tsubasa merchandise and recently caught up with Takahashi after being written into a new iteration of the manga.

Earlier this year, Mbappe even released his autobiography as a graphic novel.

In 2018, the show’s first season was rebooted, using a modern anime design, in the lead up to the Russia World Cup. A basic search on TikTok shows over 458 million views of Tsubasa-related content. On YouTube, the most viewed related to Tsubasa video has over 14 million views.

Captain Tsubasa’s influence on soccer entertainment culture remains unmatched. Journalist Caioli said the only thing that comes close – but still far behind – is the 2002 football movie play it like Beckhamwho has done wonders for the promotion of women’s football.

On December 1, Japan and Spain will face off in Group E of the World Cup in Qatar, the first time the two teams have met in a competitive game.

“We are the last [in our group] to play Spain. Hopefully we will draw lots and move on to the next round together,” Takahashi said.

“I think Spain are better than us in terms of ability, but football is a sport where anything can happen, so I think it’s possible for us to win.”

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