Art

Comic book hero

Over 40 years since making his debut, Japanese manga star Captain Tsubasa is arguably the most famous face in Japanese football. But will he be the first to lift the trophy with the big ears? Only time will tell – as his creator, Yōichi Takahashi, tells Champions Journal

WORDS Chris Burke

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.”

I wanted to depict a story about a boy who loves soccer, works hard to achieve his dreams and spreads his wings through relationships with his team-mates, rivals and people who support him
By

Takahashi also hoped his comic creation would help change football’s standing in Japan. “I wanted to depict a story about a boy who loves soccer, works hard to achieve his dreams and spreads his wings through relationships with his team-mates, rivals and people who support him,” he explains, recalling an era when Japanese youngsters had precious few football heroes. “In the 1977/78 season, the Japanese player Yasuhiko Okudera won the Bundesliga with Köln. The following season he played in the European Cup and reached the semi-finals. I had an idea that, if we had more and more players like Okudera, Japan would be able to compete on the world stage.”

A lofty ambition for sure, but it was in Takahashi’s homeland that Captain Tsubasa started working its magic on young athletes. After all, what’s not to like about a sport that has brought the main character joy, friendship, romance, success and international travel – as well as saving his life when a football cushioned the blow of an onrushing bus. Seventeen years after the comic first found an audience, Japan appeared in their maiden World Cup – and France 1998 stalwarts including Hidetoshi Nakata and Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi have long expressed their love of the series.

They, and other footballers, have sought out Takahashi personally to pass on their gratitude. “I am very happy and feel very honoured,” he says. “The animated version of Captain Tsubasa was broadcast not only in Japan but also in Germany, France and even Spain and Italy. When I’ve met players such as Andrés Iniesta, who now plays in Japan’s J-League, and Del Piero and Zidane, they’ve shared happy memories of their childhood with me. They say, ‘I used to imitate those special moves. Every morning, before going to school, I would always watch the anime.’”

Clubs have reached out too, no doubt thankful for the spark he ignited for many of their players. Takahashi was invited to a Barcelona reception in Tokyo in 2015 and drew illustrations of Messi, Neymar and Co. It was a thrilling moment for a professed Barça supporter, who mapped out the next stage of Tsubasa’s career while staying in the city during the 1998 World Cup. “I’d always liked Barcelona’s distinctive attacking style of soccer,” he says. “And when I saw their home stadium, the Camp Nou, with my own eyes, I thought to myself, ‘I want Tsubasa to play here.’”

This summer it was Paris Saint-Germain’s turn to honour the artist during their own tour of the Japanese capital, a ctiy where several statues of Tsubasa go a long way to underlining his impact. It was “a precious experience”, says Takahashi, but what he dreams of most is seeing a Japanese player finally triumph in the Champions League. Thanks in no small part to his own pen and ink, his country has become a regular supply chain for some of Europe’s biggest clubs, as Frankfurt underlined last season when Daichi Kamada and Makoto Hasebe helped the German side win the Europa League. In the biggest competition of all, however, the wait goes on.

“Of course, I keep hoping that day will come,” says Takahashi. “For the record, we can include Tsubasa Ozora as a Japanese player in this scenario, right? So will Tsubasa – the major player in the manga world – become the first Japanese player to win Old Big Ears? Or will one of the players striving in the real world lift it first? I cannot wait to see what stories lie ahead.” 

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Art

Comic book hero

Over 40 years since making his debut, Japanese manga star Captain Tsubasa is arguably the most famous face in Japanese football. But will he be the first to lift the trophy with the big ears? Only time will tell – as his creator, Yōichi Takahashi, tells Champions Journal

WORDS Chris Burke

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.”

Read the full story
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I wanted to depict a story about a boy who loves soccer, works hard to achieve his dreams and spreads his wings through relationships with his team-mates, rivals and people who support him
By

Takahashi also hoped his comic creation would help change football’s standing in Japan. “I wanted to depict a story about a boy who loves soccer, works hard to achieve his dreams and spreads his wings through relationships with his team-mates, rivals and people who support him,” he explains, recalling an era when Japanese youngsters had precious few football heroes. “In the 1977/78 season, the Japanese player Yasuhiko Okudera won the Bundesliga with Köln. The following season he played in the European Cup and reached the semi-finals. I had an idea that, if we had more and more players like Okudera, Japan would be able to compete on the world stage.”

A lofty ambition for sure, but it was in Takahashi’s homeland that Captain Tsubasa started working its magic on young athletes. After all, what’s not to like about a sport that has brought the main character joy, friendship, romance, success and international travel – as well as saving his life when a football cushioned the blow of an onrushing bus. Seventeen years after the comic first found an audience, Japan appeared in their maiden World Cup – and France 1998 stalwarts including Hidetoshi Nakata and Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi have long expressed their love of the series.

They, and other footballers, have sought out Takahashi personally to pass on their gratitude. “I am very happy and feel very honoured,” he says. “The animated version of Captain Tsubasa was broadcast not only in Japan but also in Germany, France and even Spain and Italy. When I’ve met players such as Andrés Iniesta, who now plays in Japan’s J-League, and Del Piero and Zidane, they’ve shared happy memories of their childhood with me. They say, ‘I used to imitate those special moves. Every morning, before going to school, I would always watch the anime.’”

Clubs have reached out too, no doubt thankful for the spark he ignited for many of their players. Takahashi was invited to a Barcelona reception in Tokyo in 2015 and drew illustrations of Messi, Neymar and Co. It was a thrilling moment for a professed Barça supporter, who mapped out the next stage of Tsubasa’s career while staying in the city during the 1998 World Cup. “I’d always liked Barcelona’s distinctive attacking style of soccer,” he says. “And when I saw their home stadium, the Camp Nou, with my own eyes, I thought to myself, ‘I want Tsubasa to play here.’”

This summer it was Paris Saint-Germain’s turn to honour the artist during their own tour of the Japanese capital, a ctiy where several statues of Tsubasa go a long way to underlining his impact. It was “a precious experience”, says Takahashi, but what he dreams of most is seeing a Japanese player finally triumph in the Champions League. Thanks in no small part to his own pen and ink, his country has become a regular supply chain for some of Europe’s biggest clubs, as Frankfurt underlined last season when Daichi Kamada and Makoto Hasebe helped the German side win the Europa League. In the biggest competition of all, however, the wait goes on.

“Of course, I keep hoping that day will come,” says Takahashi. “For the record, we can include Tsubasa Ozora as a Japanese player in this scenario, right? So will Tsubasa – the major player in the manga world – become the first Japanese player to win Old Big Ears? Or will one of the players striving in the real world lift it first? I cannot wait to see what stories lie ahead.” 

Art

Comic book hero

Over 40 years since making his debut, Japanese manga star Captain Tsubasa is arguably the most famous face in Japanese football. But will he be the first to lift the trophy with the big ears? Only time will tell – as his creator, Yōichi Takahashi, tells Champions Journal

WORDS Chris Burke

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.”

I wanted to depict a story about a boy who loves soccer, works hard to achieve his dreams and spreads his wings through relationships with his team-mates, rivals and people who support him
By

Takahashi also hoped his comic creation would help change football’s standing in Japan. “I wanted to depict a story about a boy who loves soccer, works hard to achieve his dreams and spreads his wings through relationships with his team-mates, rivals and people who support him,” he explains, recalling an era when Japanese youngsters had precious few football heroes. “In the 1977/78 season, the Japanese player Yasuhiko Okudera won the Bundesliga with Köln. The following season he played in the European Cup and reached the semi-finals. I had an idea that, if we had more and more players like Okudera, Japan would be able to compete on the world stage.”

A lofty ambition for sure, but it was in Takahashi’s homeland that Captain Tsubasa started working its magic on young athletes. After all, what’s not to like about a sport that has brought the main character joy, friendship, romance, success and international travel – as well as saving his life when a football cushioned the blow of an onrushing bus. Seventeen years after the comic first found an audience, Japan appeared in their maiden World Cup – and France 1998 stalwarts including Hidetoshi Nakata and Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi have long expressed their love of the series.

They, and other footballers, have sought out Takahashi personally to pass on their gratitude. “I am very happy and feel very honoured,” he says. “The animated version of Captain Tsubasa was broadcast not only in Japan but also in Germany, France and even Spain and Italy. When I’ve met players such as Andrés Iniesta, who now plays in Japan’s J-League, and Del Piero and Zidane, they’ve shared happy memories of their childhood with me. They say, ‘I used to imitate those special moves. Every morning, before going to school, I would always watch the anime.’”

Clubs have reached out too, no doubt thankful for the spark he ignited for many of their players. Takahashi was invited to a Barcelona reception in Tokyo in 2015 and drew illustrations of Messi, Neymar and Co. It was a thrilling moment for a professed Barça supporter, who mapped out the next stage of Tsubasa’s career while staying in the city during the 1998 World Cup. “I’d always liked Barcelona’s distinctive attacking style of soccer,” he says. “And when I saw their home stadium, the Camp Nou, with my own eyes, I thought to myself, ‘I want Tsubasa to play here.’”

This summer it was Paris Saint-Germain’s turn to honour the artist during their own tour of the Japanese capital, a ctiy where several statues of Tsubasa go a long way to underlining his impact. It was “a precious experience”, says Takahashi, but what he dreams of most is seeing a Japanese player finally triumph in the Champions League. Thanks in no small part to his own pen and ink, his country has become a regular supply chain for some of Europe’s biggest clubs, as Frankfurt underlined last season when Daichi Kamada and Makoto Hasebe helped the German side win the Europa League. In the biggest competition of all, however, the wait goes on.

“Of course, I keep hoping that day will come,” says Takahashi. “For the record, we can include Tsubasa Ozora as a Japanese player in this scenario, right? So will Tsubasa – the major player in the manga world – become the first Japanese player to win Old Big Ears? Or will one of the players striving in the real world lift it first? I cannot wait to see what stories lie ahead.” 

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