No offence to all the youth coaches out there, but what if the biggest inspiration for many of the world football’s leading stars was not even a real person? What if the first role model for generations of young players was a two-dimensional boy dreamed up in the head of an artist?
Step forward Tsubasa Ozora, the eponymous hero of Captain Tsubasa. It’s a hugely popular Japanese manga series that has become a mini-industry since it first appeared in 1981, spawning anime TV series, films, video games and all the merchandise any fan could want. Which is just as well given that 80 million copies of the comic books alone had been sold by 2018; it’s a global phenomenon, spreading its reach thanks to foreign-language versions of the anime show in various football hotbeds.
Chances are that your football idol’s original football idol was Tsubasa – or Oliver as he is known in Spain, (Holly for the Italian crowd and Olive in France). Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappé, Zinédine Zidane, Andrés Iniesta, Alexis Sánchez, Thierry Henry, Alessandro Del Piero… the list is practically endless. They are all players whose early passion for the sport was fuelled by the journey of a gifted cartoon schoolboy to the heights of the professional game, not to mention his science-defying feats of acrobatic skill. Former Atlético, Liverpool, Chelsea and Spain star Fernando Torres has even gone so far as to say, “I started playing football because of it.”
What a wild ride this has been for the brains behind the operation, Yōichi Takahashi, who was just 20 years old himself when his characters began life in Japanese magazine Weekly Shōnen Jump. Even more so when you consider that football was a niche sport in his part of the world at the time, unable to compete with the likes of sumo wrestling and baseball in the national psyche. “When I started working on Captain Tsubasa in the 1980s, soccer culture had not yet taken root in Japan,” he says.
Indeed, Takahashi grew up as a baseball fanatic before a life-changing glimpse into a mysterious overseas obsession. “In 1978 I watched the World Cup in Argentina on TV. That piqued my interest significantly. The atmosphere in the frenzied stadiums, with confetti flying everywhere, and seeing world-class soccer for the first time – it was awe inspiring. At the same time I learned about the professional leagues of Europe, South America and other countries worldwide, and how they each have fans who go crazy about their home teams. It was on an entirely different scale from the Japanese baseball I was accustomed to, and I came to see how soccer is a sport loved by people all over the world.”