.Soccer Anime and Manga article published in Animerica Extra Vol. 5, No. 9, August 2002
This article was written by and is copyrighted to Patricia Duffield and may not be reproduced in part or whole without permission.

Soccer is the world's most popular sport. People of nearly every nation, religion, culture and class play soccer. Like the Olympics, the wide-spread appeal of soccer can unite people all over the world. This is why the FIFA World Cup soccer tournament is one of the most highly attended, widely televised sporting events on the planet. Nearly 150 countries vie for the privilege of participating once every four years, a privilege only 32 achieve. This year's World Cup was was a perfect example of the power of soccer, for it co-hosted by Japan and South Korea, two countries with a difficult past. Creating new socio-political bridges was not the only aspect to make the 2002 World Cup exceptionally momentous; it was also the first to be held in Asia! To celebrate this year's historic World Cup and the innate drama of sports, lace up your cleats, it's time to pay tribute to soccer.

When thinking of soccer and anime, the first name to come to most people's minds is Yoichi (long u) Takahashi's Captain Tsubasa. There's good reason for this. Over the past 20 years, there have been three manga titles, three anime shows, five movies and a video series to bear the name Captain Tsubasa, making the title the most famous of all soccer anime and manga.

Tsubasa Ozora (long o) is a spirited boy with dreams of becoming Japan's greatest soccer player. To help him train so he might achieve his goals, Tsubasa's often absent father sends Roberto Hongo (long o), a half-Japanese Brazilian whose soccer career was cut short by injury. Roberto promises to take Tsubasa to Brazil if he can become a champion. Of course, to be a champion, you have to have a team of champions to back you up!

When Tsubasa moves to the town of Nankatsu, he joins the local soccer club then hears of a boy who supposedly can catch anything thing that comes his way. Genzo (long o) Wakabayashi claims to be the best goalkeeper in Japan, so naturally Tsubasa challenges him. Although Tsubasa manages to win, he's so enthusiastic and nice about it that the arrogant Wakabayashi decides their teams can play together. United, they make their way toward the championships. Along the way, there are plenty of interesting techniques to learn, intriguing rivals to compete against and endless fast-paced soccer action. While the series has some everyday life qualities, it's primarily pure, undiluted sports fantasy.

In 1983, when the series began, there was no professional soccer in Japan. So Roberto's promise to take Tsubasa to Brazil --home of many of the world's best soccer teams and players-- was the ultimate dream for a young soccer enthusiast. Japan now has a pro soccer league, but Captain Tsubasa has always maintained its international scope. The current series, Captain Tsubasa Road to 2002, follows the grown up Tsubasa's World Cup aspirations with all the action and drama of the original series but on a global scale, with his old rivals and teammates scattered around the world.

Despite its name recognition, Captain Tsubasa was not the first soccer anime. That distinction goes to the testosterone-intensive Akaki Chi no Eleven (Red-Blooded Eleven) which premiered in 1970. By then, the legendary baseball anime Kyojin no Hoshi (Star of the Giants) had been running successfully for two years, so why not a soccer anime? Loosely modeled after real players, the Red-Blooded Eleven change from aimless punks into a team to contend with thanks to tough training and developing obscure techniques such as the "submarine shoot" and "missile shoot." For them, soccer is more than a sport; it's battle! The feet flew for 52 episodes of fantastic fighting fun.

Bridging the gap between the original Captain Tsubasa and the 1989 Shin Captain Tsubasa (New Captain Tsubasa) video series is the show Gambare! Kickers (Go! Kickers). Originating from Noriaki Nagai's manga series of the same name, the Kitahara Kickers are the worst soccer team in town. They've lost 22 times in a row! Hardly the sparkling fantasy of soccer genius seen in earlier shows. When Kakeru joins, the Kickers are so bad they're going to be disbanded. Kakeru's enthusiasm inspires team captain Katsu. Together, they struggle to pull the Kickers out of the dumps and achieve their goal of winning one game to save the team. Although the TV series only ran 23 episodes, followed by a pair of specials, the charm and spunk of Go! Kickers made it popular and garnered it the 1987 Shogakukan Shonen Manga Award.

Following New Captain Tsubasa are the TV shows Moero! Top Striker (Burn! Top Striker) in 1991 and Ashita e Freekick (Freekick to Tomorrow) in 1992. Top Striker has all the growing pains and team struggle of any soccer series, but unlike the others, it has a foreign cast and takes place wholly outside of Japan. Less action intensive, Freekick concentrates more on the everyday lives of its players, offering a departure from the emphasis on training, competing and technique of earlier shows.

Rivaling Captain Tsubasa for most popular soccer anime and manga is Shoot!. Unaware of his own potential, Toshi enters Kakegawa to play with his idol, soccer genius Kubo. Kazuhiro is Toshi's bespectacled friend who is as brilliant off the field as on it. Their goalie friend Kenji is a motorcycle punk who's decided his life would be better if he put his energy into fighting on the field instead of on the street. Pressured by his parents, Kazuhiro plans not to play soccer in high school, but pretty manager Kazumi steals his attention and his heart. This causes numerous misunderstandings since Toshi also likes her, and she likes Toshi. Of course, neither one has said so, and you wouldn't guess they can even stand each other from the way they get along sometimes. Amidst all this is the team's struggle for greatness.

Sports action, romantic angst, complicated pasts, everyday drama: these are all reasons to make the series appealing to a wide audience, but a traumatic plot twist (which we won't reveal) makes this good story great. Although the TV series only ran 58 episodes, the Shoot! comic won the 1994 Kodansha Shonen Manga Award and is on its third sequel series. One of the attributes which makes Shoot! especially significant is that artist Tsukasa Oshima is a woman, a unique quality among shonen sports manga artists.

The animated series Aoki Densetsu Shoot! (Blue Legend Shoot!) came out the year Japan's first professional soccer league began. A year later, there were three more soccer shows: the mildly received Captain Tsubasa J, the unusual Soccer Fever, and the competition-oriented Goal FH (Goal Field Hunter). Soccer Fever was unique in that it was more of an animated documentary than a series. The show covered a period of time from 1930 to 1994 and portrayed the history as well as the drama of soccer. After this over-saturation of soccer series, it took a few years for new ones to be produced.

Japan's successful bid to host the 2002 World Cup has rekindled soccer fever in the anime and manga industry. Aside from sequel manga series for Captain Tsubasa and Shoot!, new comics like Shonen Sunday's Fantasista and Shonen Jump's Buttobi Itto (Flying Itto) have expanded the variety of soccer manga. Along with a new Captain Tsubasa TV series, Natsuko Heiuchi's famous Offside has finally become an animated show. Equal in drama and action to Shoot!, Offside is another contender for most popular soccer manga and was one of Shonen Magazine's strongest draws from 1987 to 1992.

Opening in 1993 with 10 teams, J-League, Japan's first professional soccer organization, was an overnight hit, filling stadiums to near capacity from game one. Sure, the intensive, colorful, multi-media promotional campaign was a deciding factor in J-League's success, but without soccer anime and manga instilling Japan with decades of enthusiasm for the sport, no amount of PR would have garnered J-League such an intense, immediate fanbase. J-League now has two divisions, with a total of 28 teams, a tribute to the sports's popularity. With such thriving mass-appeal, there are sure to be plenty of new soccer series to add to the classics and satisfy the need for competitive, action-packed sports drama.