Spanish football fans may speak their regional bias when asked for their favourite players.
The Catalans might say Andrés Iniesta or David Villa, and the Madrileños, Iker Casillas or Fernando Torres.
The players, however, may tell you that their hero is not a former Spanish player or even a real person.
He’s the fictional, 11-year-old Japanese boy named Tsubasa.
“Captain Tsubasa” (known as “Oliver y Benji”, “Olive et Tom”, “Supercampeones”, or “Captain Majid” in other parts of the world), 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 footballer.
His journey begins on an elementary school’s football pitch in Japan and takes him to São Paulo – the show is very popular in Brazil – and Barcelona before the World Cup.
The TV anime series was launched in 1983. Known for its unrealistic but jaw-dropping, and sometimes episodes-long, kicks, the series has sold more than 80 million copies worldwide. Over the years, it’s been transformed into 15 serialised mangas, nearly 20 video games, five television series and four films.
Many Spanish footballing legends – including Iniesta, Torres, Villa – and others from around the world like Lukas Podolski, Alessandro Del Piero, and Alexis Sanchez, have publicly traced their love of the game back to watching Tsubasa as kids.
“I started playing football because of this… I loved the cartoon. I wanted to be Oliver,” Torres has said in the past.
Torres and Villa, after starring for years in Europe, incidentally finished their careers in Japan.
Podolski had a stint at the Japanese club Vissel Kobe.
“Captain Tsubasa has always been one of my biggest inspirations since I was a kid. It’s an honour to support Japanese football manga and that unique culture,” Podolski said.
Today, Iniesta is Vissel Kobe’s captain.
So how did a child comic character from a football-indifferent 1980s Japan become the inspiration for future stars in an already football-crazed Spain?
Japan and Spain carry very different weights on the global football stage.
While Japan has elevated itself into a consistent qualifier for the men’s World Cups over the last two decades – its women’s side was world champions in 2011 – Spain is a powerhouse and won the competition in 2010, as well as the Euros in 2008 and 2012.
Football was introduced to the two countries at the same time, 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 popularised by migrant workers from the UK and Spanish students who had learned to play while on exchange in the UK.
Japan hosted its first official match in 1888 with Spain’s taking place 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 football’s trajectory in the two countries began to deviate.
By the late 1970s, they stood on completely different levels. Japan had not managed to qualify for the World Cup since the team’s creation in 1930, while Spain had qualified four times, including a fourth-place finish in 1950.
Inspired by watching the 1978 World Cup in Argentina on television, Japanese animator Takahashi decided he wanted that to change.
“I thought football was very interesting and wanted to see it become a popular sport in Japan. I wanted the national football team to become stronger. In that sense, I wrote this book for the Japanese audience, explaining football in more detail,” Takahashi told Al Jazeera.
He began to create the cast of characters who would eventually become Captain Tsubasa, his friends and their opponents.
Bringing football to life in a country where it had existed for about 100 years but hadn’t found its footing would be no easy task.
“Football was not so 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 small children,” Takahashi added.
Little did he know that his work would inspire not only children in Japan but a whole new generation of players in Spain as well.
Until 1983, the Spanish government had operated only two central television channels and in 1990, three commercial channels were launched.
One of those was Tele5 which, after seeing Captain Tsubasa’s success in Japan, decided to bring the show to Spain. Captain Tsubasa was rebranded as “Oliver y Benji” and appeared for the first time on Spanish TV 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 cartoons would be on TV on weekend mornings or after school. But he thought about when kids would be at home and decided to take the risk and air Tsubasa right before dinner, competing with the news,” Montes told Al Jazeera.
The experiment was a success. A 1990 article from El Pais listed viewership at a significant 26.3 percent of the national audience after only two months.
“When we were kids, if you didn’t watch Tsubasa the night before, you couldn’t play with us at school the next day. You wouldn’t know about the latest new shot that Tsubasa had made,” Montes said.
Years later, some of these children became the world’s most successful footballers, and often talk about Captain Tsubasa’s role in their love for the beautiful game.
‘Happy to be playing in Japan’
Iniesta, Vissel Kobe captain, was an honoured guest at the inauguration of a Tsubasa-themed train station in Tokyo.
“I remember the characters’ unique playing styles, and am happy to be playing in Japan, where the anime was made,” he has said in the past.
Until 2020, Villa also played for the same side. Even the team’s current manager, Miguel Ángel Lotina, is Spanish.
Luca Caioli, a sports journalist and author of Torres, a biography on the former Spain striker, said the show was important to “El Niño” at an early age.
“All his friends that I talked to remember, and can sing, the jingle [to Captain Tsubasa]. When you’re five or six, you need a hero, and once you have one, you follow it,” Caioli told Al Jazeera.
Years later, knowing of Torres’ devotion to the show, the president of Sagan Tosu (a J1 team) came to Madrid to meet him while the striker was at Atletico Madrid.
At their meeting, he presented the Spaniard with a drawing of Captain Tsubasa standing alongside an animated version of Torres, signed by Takahashi himself.
Torres ended up finishing his career with Sagan Tosu.
Captain Tsubasa has continued to inspire Spaniards, even those who didn’t grow up watching it during its initial TV run.
Takahashi said the show’s popularity can partly be attributed to the prevalence of reruns.
“It has been aired more often overseas than in Japan, so I think that the players of the Iniesta generation, as well as the members of the current generation, were influenced by the animation when they were children. I heard that when the World Cup or Euro starts, Captain Tsubasa starts re-airing in Europe so I think this cyclical exposure has been crucial to its popularity,” he told Al Jazeera.
Mauro Bravo, a 22-year-old Spaniard who plays in the United States for Major League Soccer’s Orlando City, has a tattoo of Tsubasa performing one of his iconic far-fetched, backwards, overhead kicks covering his thigh.
“My family taught me to love football, but it was [Captain Tsubasa] that made me passionate about it.”
With players of his generation, it’s still very common to have watched the show growing up, Bravo said. His devotion to the show is not only rooted in a love for the sport but what he’s learned from watching it.
“It teaches you valuable lessons for life, like sportsmanship, dedication, and how to be a good teammate.”
Gen-Z star and France’s World Cup winner Kylian Mbappe wears Captain Tsubasa merchandise and recently met with Takahashi after he was written into a new iteration of the manga.
Earlier this year, Mbappe even published his autobiography in graphic novel form.
— Kylian Mbappé (@KMbappe) June 19, 2019
In 2018, the first season of the show was rebooted, using modern anime design, in the run-up to the Russia World Cup. A basic search on TikTok shows 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 influence on football entertainment culture remains unmatched. Journalist Caioli said the only thing that comes close – but still a distant second – is the 2002 football film Bend It Like Beckham, which did wonders for promoting the women’s game.
On December 1, Japan and Spain will take on each other in Group E of the World Cup in Qatar, the first time the two sides meet in a competitive fixture.
“We are the last [in our group] to play Spain. I’m hoping we draw and go to the next round together,” Takahashi said.
“I think Spain is better than us in terms of ability, but football is a sport where anything can happen, so I think it is possible for us to win.”