The Japanese National Team has been growing in popularity over the past few years, with more and more neutrals backing them up due to their unique and quite exciting, entertaining brand of football. This week’s game against Italy, where they lost 4-3 but played some sublime football, has only reinforced that bandwagon of sorts, as evidenced by the reactions in the social media (especially Twitter). What many might not know is that the first Japanese football star, who played a crucial rule in Japanese football’s exponential growth from relative obscurity, was a kid called Tsubasa Oozora. Some actually know that but have come to dread the frequent Captain Tsubasa references/jokes during commentary whenever Japan plays. But those references or jokes aren’t random at all; they don’t exist simply because Captain Tsubasa happens to be a Japanese production, but because without it Japanese football would never be where it is today.

They changed Japanese football forever and inspired an entire generation

For those wondering, Captain Tsubasa is a Japanese manga and anime series about a kid (Oozora Tsubasa) who dreams of becoming the best player in the world and especially winning the World Cup for Japan. It was a series that changed the face of Japanese football completely. While manga/anime is very popular and influential in Japanese culture ai??i?? with, for instance, Japanese tennis star Kei Nishikori (currently ranked #11 in the world) admitting to have been inspired by the manga series Prince of Tennis to start playing tennis as a kid in hopes of emulating his hero and lead character Ryoma Echizen ai??i?? Captain Tsubasa’s influence is on a whole different level, not only but especially as far as Japanese football is concerned.

Back in 1981 when the first chapter of the manga series was released, baseball was by far the most popular sport in Japan. In fact there wasn’t even a professional football league, with the sport having a very limited following and people generally not even being aware of how it worked/its rules. Yoichi Takahashi, the author of Captain Tsubasa, said:

ai???Like everyone else as a child I played baseball but that changed as a teenager watching the 1978 FIFA World Cup on TV even though Japan werenai??i??t taking part, thatai??i??s when I realised just how wonderful football is.

Iai??i??d already been drawing manga comics for many years so I thought why not introduce football to my manga as well. I was hoping I could share the excitement of what I had witnessed on television through my drawings and in so doing hope that football would become more popular here in Japan.ai???

The success was almost instantaneous, as the series quickly garnered a very large following.Ai??ai???Captain Tsubasa was a social phenomenon.Ai??I remember time when every ball Tsubasa used in the story, or whichever cap the goalkeeper, Wakabayashi, wore would sell out in the store the very next day,ai??? said Takahashi.

Soon after, every kid in Japan wanted to be like Tsubasa, Hyuga, Wakabaysashi and co. ai??i?? with a lot of the Japanese stars of the past decade claiming that Captain Tsubasa was how they discovered football in the first place. While it still couldn’t rival baseball as Japan’s national sport, the amount of kids playing football and dreaming to become pros increased exponentially, which eventually led to the creation of the J-League in 1992, the beginning of professional league football in Japan. It was the incredible success of Captain Tsubasa that led to this quick and enormous development in Japanese football, making the ever so modest Takahashi very happy to say the least:

ai???It makes me immensely proud to know that I’ve made a contribution to Japanese football.ai???

The rest, as they say, is history. Captain Tsubasa is still being written today, with Tsubasa and co. already having led Japan to the U-16 and U-18 World Cups. Tsubasa moved to Spain to play for FC Barcelona, Hyuga to Juventus and many characters to several other big clubs across Europe. Eventually the series is expected to end with Japan lifting the World Cup title (Takahashi has vowed to keep drawing Captain Tsubasa until he dies). Four anime series with 240 episodes in total have been made and garnered just as much popularity, even more so than the manga outside of Japan.

As for Japanese football, it has kept growing at a rapid pace, with Japan featuring in each of the last four World Cups, with two 9th place finishes (last 16) and being already qualified for the World Cup in 2014. With the generations of kids influenced by Tsubasa, Hyuga and co. completely have changed the face of Japanese football and are making it more and more of a force to be reckoned with ai??i?? not to mention a brand of football that is widely appreciated.Ai??A statue of Tsubasa was fittingly erected earlier this year in Tokyo, in recognition of his influence in the development of football in Japan.

AndrAi??s Iniesta wearing a Captain Tsubasa jersey in an official La Liga award ceremony, not for the only time tooAi??

But Captain Tsubasa’s influence was far from confined to Japanese football. Some of the most famous footballers of the past 15 years like Alessandro del Piero, Zinedine Zidane, Lionel Messi, AndrAi??s Iniesta, among others have all claimed to have been heavily influenced by Captain Tsubasa. Chelsea’s forward Fernando Torres even dedicated a recent interview to explaining how it was Captain Tsubasa that made him dream of becoming a football player in the first place. Captain Tsubasa, both the anime and the manga, was a truly global phenomenon, inspiring countless kids all over the globe to follow their dream and become professional football players. The series is hardly what you’d call realistic, with all sorts of impossible shots, tricks, techniques being performed by the characters basically all the time, but that’s actually what makes it so fascinating and a phenomenon of such proportions ai??i?? it dares people, especially kids, to dream.

While it’s easy to appreciate the kind of football Japan played against Italy, those who never read or watched Captain Tsubasa can never fully understand what’s going on. That Japanese team is the perfect embodiment of the Captain Tsubasa spirit ai??i?? not only in the way they play, but their resilience and never-say-die attitude, the reflex of a generation of players inspired by Tsubasa and co. While, as their results show, Japan might still be quite far from realizing Tsubasa’s dream of winning the World Cup, their growth is ominous and doesn’t look like stopping any time soon, with the talent pool only becoming deeper. Should they continue in this fashion, they could even get their hands on the World Cup trophy before Tsubasa gets a chance, although it looks like a distant goal at the moment.

It seems almost surreal to credit the development of Japanese football to what for most is a mere comic strip/animated series, but the truth is that Japanese football fans owe an eternal debt to Yoichi Takahashi and Oozora Tsubasa ai??i?? the 10-year-old football-loving kid with a dream that has changed the face of Japanese football forever.

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