Spanish football fans can address their regional focus when asked about their favorite players.
The Catalans might say Andrés Iniesta or David Villa and the Madrileños Iker Casillas or Fernando Torres.
However, players can 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 in other parts of the world as Oliver y Benji, Olive et Tom, Supercampeones, or Captain Majid) 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 soccer player.
His journey begins on an elementary school soccer field in Japan and takes him to São Paulo – the show is very popular in Brazil – and Barcelona ahead of the World Cup.
The TV anime series was launched in 1983. Known for its unrealistic yet stunning and sometimes episode-long kicks, the series has sold more than 80 million copies worldwide. Over the years, it has grown into 15 serial manga, almost 20 video games, five TV series and four movies.
Many Spanish football legends – including Iniesta, Torres, Villa – and others from around the world such as Lukas Podolski, Alessandro Del Piero and Alexis Sanchez have publicly attributed their love of football to watching Tsubasa as children.
“That’s why I started playing football… I loved the cartoon. I wanted to be Oliver,” Torres said in the past.
Incidentally, Torres and Villa, after years of starring in Europe, ended their careers in Japan.
Podolski played for the Japanese club Vissel Kobe.
“Captain Tsubasa has always been one of my biggest inspirations since I was a child. It’s an honor to support Japanese soccer manga and this unique culture,” said Podolski.
Today Iniesta is the captain of Vissel Kobe.
So how did a children’s cartoon character from a football-indifferent 1980s Japan become an inspiration for future stars in an already football-mad Spain?
Japan and Spain have very different weights on the global football stage.
While Japan has become a steady qualifier for the men’s World Cup over the past two decades – its women’s team were world champions in 2011 – Spain is a powerhouse, winning the competition in 2010 and Euros 2008 and 2012.
Soccer was introduced to both countries simultaneously in the 1870s.
In Japan, a British Royal Navy officer named Archibald Lucius Douglas taught his students the sport while working at the Japanese Navy Academy in Tokyo.
In Spain, football was popularized by migrant workers from the UK and Spanish students who learned to play football during an exchange stay in the UK.
Japan hosted its first official game in 1888, followed by Spain two years later.
But in the run-up to the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium, Spain decided to build its first national team while Japan waited until a decade later and the development of football in the two countries began to diverge.
At the end of the 1970s they were on completely different levels. Japan had not managed 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.
Inspired by the televised World Cup in Argentina in 1978, Japanese animator Takahashi decided he wanted to change that.
“I found football very interesting and wanted it to become a popular sport in Japan. I wanted the national soccer team to get stronger. With that in mind, I wrote this book for the Japanese audience and explained 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 has existed for around 100 years but has not yet taken root would not be an easy task.
“Football wasn’t that 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 children,” 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.
By 1983 the Spanish government had only operated two central television channels and in 1990 three commercial channels were launched.
One of these was Tele5 which, after seeing the success of Captain Tsubasa in Japan, decided to bring the show to Spain. Captain Tsubasa was renamed “Oliver y Benji” and made his first appearance on Spanish television later that year.
Didier Montes, a sports communications professional who created a viral Twitter thread about Captain Tsubasa, said a decision by Tele5 executive Antonio Pusueco was key to the show’s success.
“Usually there were cartoons on TV in the mornings or after school at weekends. But he thought about when the kids would be home and decided to take a risk and air Tsubasa right before dinner to compete with the news,” Montes told Al Jazeera.
The experiment was a success. A 1990 El Pais article put the viewership at a whopping 26.3 percent of the national audience after just two months.
“When we were kids, you couldn’t play with us at school the next day if you didn’t see Tsubasa the night before. They wouldn’t know about the last new recording Tsubasa did,” Montes said.
Years later, some of these kids have become some of the most successful soccer players in the world and often talk about Captain Tsubasa’s role in their love of beautiful soccer.
“Happy to play in Japan”
Iniesta, captain of Vissel Kobe, was the guest of honor at the inauguration of a Tsubasa-style train station in Tokyo.
“I remember the characters’ unique playstyles and I’m excited to be set in Japan, where the anime was made,” he said in the past.
Until 2020, Villa also played for the same team.
Luca Caioli, sportswriter and author of Torres, a biography of the former Spanish striker, said the show was important to “El Niño” from a young age.
“All of his friends I’ve spoken to remember the jingle and can sing it [to Captain Tsubasa]. When you are five or six years old you need a hero and when you have one you follow him,” Caioli told Al Jazeera.
Years later, the president of Sagan Tosu (a J1 team) came to Madrid to meet him, knowing of Torres’ devotion to the show while the forward 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 eventually ended his career at Sagan Tosu.
Captain Tsubasa has continued to inspire Spaniards, even those who didn’t grow up watching it during its first television broadcast.
Takahashi said the show’s popularity can be attributed in part to the proliferation of reruns.
“It’s aired more abroad than in Japan, so I think the Iniesta generation players as well as the current generation members were influenced by the animation when they were kids. I’ve heard that Captain Tsubasa will be broadcast again in Europe at the start of the World Cup or Euro, so I think that cyclical exposure was crucial to his popularity,” he told Al Jazeera.
Mauro Bravo, a 22-year-old Spaniard who plays for Major League Soccer’s Orlando City in the United States, has a tattoo of Tsubasa performing one of his iconic far-fetched overhead kicks on his thigh.
“My family taught me to love football but that was it [Captain Tsubasa] that got me excited.”
It’s still common for gamers of his generation to have watched the show as an adult, Bravo said. His dedication to the show is not only rooted in a love of the sport, but in what he has learned from it.
“It teaches you valuable life lessons like sportsmanship, dedication and how to be a good teammate.”
Gen-Z star and France World Champion Kylian Mbappe wears Captain Tsubasa merchandise and recently hooked up with Takahashi after he was written into a new iteration of the manga.
Earlier this year, Mbappe even released his autobiography in the form of a graphic novel.
— Kylian Mbappe (@KMbappe) June 19, 2019
In 2018, the show’s first season was rebooted with modern anime design ahead of the Russia World Cup. A simple search on TikTok reveals more than 458 million views of Tsubasa-related content. On YouTube, the most viewed Tsubasa-related video has more than 14 million views.
Captain Tsubasa’s impact on football entertainment culture is unmatched. Journalist Caioli said the only thing that comes close – but still far away – is the 2002 football film do it like Beckhamwho did wonders for the advancement of women’s football.
On December 1, Japan and Spain meet 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] play against Spain. I hope we can draw and go to the next round together,” said Takahashi.
“I think Spain are better than us in terms of performance, but football is a sport where anything can happen, so I think we can win.”