How Captain Tsubasa Inspired a Generation

Lionel Messi, Fernando Torres, Andrés Iniesta and Alessandro Del Piero are known the world over. It is an uncommon denominator, however, that connects these superstars and many more around the globe: a Japanase manga and anime series by the name of Captain Tsubasa.

Captain Tsubasa – A Background and Overview

Captain Tsubasa was created by Yoichi Takahashi in 1981 in the small Tokyo ward of Katsushika. It tells the story of Tsubasa Oozora, a soccer prodigy from Japan who, along with his friends, grows up to become a global soccer star. In addition to focusing on the bond between Tsubasa and his friends, the series was famous for its flashy skill moves and shots bordering on the impossible that one could not help but marvel at.

A photo of Oliver Benji and their friends when they were still young
A photo of Oliver Benji and their friends when they were still young

Although a huge hit worldwide that sold over 100 million copies, Captain Tsubasa enjoyed tremendous success outside of Japan in one country in particular: Spain. Known to most of the world as Captain Tsubasa, the series adopted the name of “Oliver y Benji” in Spain – a reference to the Spanish names of Tsubasa (Oliver) and his rival-turned-friend Genzo Wakabayashi (Benji). It was living in Spain that I first discovered Captain Tsubasa, stumbling upon the anime on television after school one day. From that day forward, every day during school I would count down the minutes until the last bell of the day; I just wanted to race home and watch Captain Tsubasa.

Captain Tsubasa – The Anime that Inspired People Around the World

The show’s exciting matches that so compelled me were characterized by the ridiculous moves that the characters pulled off and by the tremendous distance they travelled to get from one end of the pitch to the other (some plays would last entire episodes). In addition to the exciting action on the pitch, it was the development of Oliver, Benji and their friends that made the series such a worldwide hit. Readers and viewers watched a group of friends begin as kids and turn into stars on the world stage, reaching the peak of European soccer and the World Cup. Every day after watching the day’s episode, my friends and I would go play soccer until our parents called us in for dinner – it brings a smile to my face remembering how we spent hours trying to emulate the likes of Oliver and Tom’s twin shot and of Benji’s ridiculous saves.

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Tom and Oliver performing their famous double shotTom and Oliver performing their famous double shot
Tom and Oliver performing their famous double shot

Unsurprisingly, my friends and I were not the only kids inspired by Captain Tsubasa. Lionel Messi, Fernando Torres, Andrés Iniesta and Alessandro Del Piero all grew up influenced by the series. Fernando Torres even credited his professional ambitions to the show: “I remember when I was a kid, we couldn’t find the signal really well on TV, but everyone in school was talking about this cartoon about football, from Japan. I started playing football because of this, and because my brother forced me, and I loved the cartoon. I wanted to be Oliver, because he played out on the field and Benji was the goalkeeper.”

In addition to El Niño, Lionel Messi, Zinedine Zidane, Alessandro Del Piero and countless other footballing figures have all spoken about their admiration for the series. Most recently, Barcelona manager Luis Enrique brought up the series during a press conference, comparing Messi to the anime’s stars Oliver and Benji.

Captain Tsubasa – How the Anime Made Japan Fall in Love with Soccer

The reach of Captain Tsubasa extends beyond just inspiring footballers around the world, however; it also inspired a nation to embrace the game of soccer. When the series began, soccer’s popularity in Japan lagged far behind baseball’s, with not even a professional league in place. This lack of popularity quickly changed as Captain Tsubasa made kids all over the country, including many future national team stars, fall in love with soccer. Japan’s first professional soccer league, the J-League, kicked off in 1992 and 10 years later Japan co-hosted its first World Cup.

Captain Tsubasa Author Yoichi Takahashi with the Japanese Women’s National Team
Captain Tsubasa Author Yoichi Takahashi with the Japanese Women’s National Team

Exceeding its status as a pop-culture craze, Captain Tsubasa truly became the catalyst for soccer’s rise in Japan. More recently, signs of the series’ popularity are still on display in Japan. In 2014, multiple statues of Tsubasa were erected in Katsushika and the series was even used to aid Japan’s successful bid for the 2020 Olympics.  It is no wonder that Takahashi still produces new content and that the series still receives continued exposure.

Captain Tsubasa – Forever in My Heart and Memories

Andrès Iniesta is still a fan of Captain Tsubasa to this day
Andrès Iniesta is still a fan of Captain Tsubasa to this day

The popularity of manga and anime in Japan is tremendous, yet very few series are able to become worldwide hits and survive the test of time. Although the groundbreaking anime such as the Dragon Ball Z’s, Doraemon’s, and Naruto’s are few and far between, Captain Tsubasa is unquestionably a part of such a list. Its ability to inspire children and an entire nation to fall in love with soccer will forever be its legacy. However, as someone who grew up emulating Oliver and his friends, it is the joyous memories that it has left me that I will cherish the most. Even to this day, ten years after first watching Captain Tsubasa, I still remember the Spanish lyrics to the opening song; I am singing them while writing this article grinning from ear to ear like my 10 year old self hoping to try out the show’s newest tricks.

Captain Tsubasa was more than just a series for me. It represented the shared dream of every kid watching; a representation of the dreams of Messi, Iniesta, Del Piero and Torres: to become world-renowned footballers just like Oliver and Benji. It gave me and millions around the globe hope and inspiration that we too could be like the two prodigious footballers.

Remember how I Mentioned Captain Tsubasa was Massive in Spain?

Well, it still is. Here is a clip of El Hombre Linterna singing the song to a packed Madrid crowd right before the final of Spain’s 2008 Eurocopa triumph

Opening Song of Captain Tsubasa in Spain

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