The Mike Toole Show
Dribbling Eastward

by Michael Toole, Jun 20th 2010

Soccer is near and dear to my heart.  It's a game I played as a child, a game I still play, and one that I especially love watching.  I've got a season ticket to my local team, the New England Revolution (don't ask me about those four MLS Cup appearances, I was at all of them...), I watch tons of games from all over the world on TV... I just dig it.  Anime and manga are huge passions of mine, but soccer is right up there with 'em.  I especially love this time in the calendar, because soccer's World Cup, undoubtedly the biggest sporting event in the world, is upon us, and it's a rare time when most Americans, who are typically content to only glance at SportsCenter "look at this craaaaazy goal" highlights once in a while, give their full attention to the beautiful game.  It's mid-May as I write this column, of course, because I'm actually at the World Cup in South Africa as you read this.  If I haven't responded to your emails or forum posts in the past couple of days, now you know why!

Before we proceed, I'm not interested in any remarks about how the game is really called football, and only dumb Americans call it soccer.  "Soccer" is an English term invented by an Englishman, and furthermore I don't pass lorries on the motorway to get to work, so I'm sticking with "soccer" over "football."  Just like I say "cookie" instead of biscuit," and "chip" instead of "crisp," and... wait a minute, what the hell do British people call COOKIE CRISP cereal?!  Er, the thing is, soccer and anime actually dovetail pretty nicely-- sports anime is a treasured and time-honored genre, and there are some pretty big-deal soccer anime as a result.  Irritatingly, most of these productions haven't really made a splash in the English-language world, so I thought it'd be a good idea to call attention to them in time for the World Cup.



1970's Red-Blooded Eleven is the first soccer anime ever produced, and that distinction is probably the most interesting thing about it, based on the limited footage I've gotten to see.  Okay, I've gotta be selling this series drastically short; it ran for no less than fifty-two episodes in 1970, spinning off from a successful SHONEN KING manga series.  Unfortunately, I've only seen one of these episodes, and it was hackneyed and silly.  Obviously, I definitely want to see more, but the DVD sets have gone out of print and are getting harder to find, so I better get cracking on that.  One neat thing about this series is that it takes place in Urawa ward, a neighborhood in Saitama that is today one of the most soccer-crazy in Japan; local J-League team Urawa Red Diamonds routinely draws more than 40,000 to their games.  I guess it all started with Red-Blooded Eleven!

Soccer anime's next big hit wouldn't come until 1983, but it would be less of a hit and more of a nuclear strike.  Yōichi Takahashi's Captain Tsubasa was already a massively successful manga when it hit the airwaves, and its success translated easily to the small screen.  It's not much of a secret why-- the story of young, fresh-faced Tsubasa Ohzora and his gradual rise to international soccer stardom utilizes shonen and sports anime formulas to perfection.  Tsubasa starts inauspiciously enough; while the boy is a gifted player, it isn't until he slowly and carefully starts assembling a team of great players around him that he really begins to thrive.  These players include goalkeeper Genzo Wakabayashi, a natural leader who is fiercely competitive on the field, midfielder Taro Misaki, who perfects a one-two passing technique that allows him and Tsubasa to breach even the toughest of defenses, and muscular striker Kojiro Hyuga.  Eventually, Tsubasa's Nankatsu high school team wins Japan's youth championships, setting the gifted playmaker and his squad up as the bedrock of Japan's emerging national team. In a time when Japan's soccer profile was very low (in 1983, Japan had no nationwide professional league, and the country had not appeared in a World Cup), creator Takahashi dreamed big, weaving a story where his characters left Japan to play for internationally renowned pro teams like Paris St. Germain, Hamburg SV, and Inter Milan.

The thing is, though, when the World Cup finally took place in Japan in 2002, the country's top stars were plying their trade for the likes of English champions Arsenal, Dutch powerhouse Feyenoord, and Italy's AS Roma, and the Japanese national team would score a famous victory against hotly competitive Russia to advance farther in the tournament than ever before.  I think that, without  a doubt, some small measure of that success is owed to Captain Tsubasa, a series which planted in its young readers the notions that Japanese soccer players could compete in the world's best leagues and that the Japanese national team could score upsets against the toughest and most storied of opponents.  That kind of positive reinforcement is incredibly valuable, and we'll see how it holds up as Japan returns to the World Cup for the fourth straight time this month. As for Captain Tsubasa, the anime has ran, at various times, for more than 200 episodes, and the manga still continues today.

What was next for soccer anime?  That had to be 1986's Ganbare! Kickers.  This 21-episode outing from Studio Pierrot looks and feels awfully familiar compared to Captain Tsubasa, but its characters are actually even younger, and the show features large doses of comedy.  The series was quite popular in Germany and Saudi Arabia; if you ever want to see more fan-made music videos about imaginary romantic relationships between 12-year-olds than you ever thought possible, just search for Kickers on YouTube.  

We wouldn't see an anime soccer story for some years-- not until 1992's Free Kick to Tomorrow.  Known as Supercampeones in some Spanish-speaking countries (very confusing, since Captain Tsubasa was also known as Supercampeones in some Spanish-speaking countries), this series chronicles the exploits of Jun Godai, a talented and athletic youngster who emigrates with his wealthy family to Italy.  Defying his well-connected grandfather, Jun pushes to become a player on the town's pro soccer team, but sports in real life is complicated-- Jun dreams of the team using locally-grown players to succeed, but the realities of the game mean that the team struggles with financial problems and operates with a revolving squad of mercenary out-of-town players.  Free Kick to Tomorrow is famous among sports anime and manga enthusiasts for having a marvelously and frustratingly open ending; we finally get to see Jun compete in a championship match, but we never find out if he wins or not.

I'll take a break from talking about these shows to jaw about the stuff that amuses me about soccer anime.  Like most sports anime, soccer anime features hilariously extreme time distortion, where actions on the field that normally take fractions of a second stretch out for minutes at a time, as the players launch agonized internal monologues about whether they should float the ball forward to the man on the left wing or pass back to the goalkeeper.  There are single matches in some of these shows that take place over the course of ten episodes or more!  These things are only supposed to last ninety goddamn minutes!  Another thing that is often present is a hackneyed match announcer; even in games that barely have an audience in the context of the story, there has to be an omnipresent sportscaster guy to breathlessly explain what's happening on the field.  Could you imagine that happening during a real match-- a guy getting on the tannoy and describing the shit out of everything?  It'd be the most annoying thing in the world!  Finally, while they aren't present in all soccer anime, I really love special moves.  You know, cool magical attacks, similar to Goku's Kamehameha or the Gum-Gum Bazooka punch that Monkey from One Piece unleashes on his foes.  Captain Tsubasa is particularly well known for them, whether they're Tsubasa's famous Drive Shoot or Shun Nitta's Hayabusa Shoot.  These make perfect sense to me, becase real-life soccer is run through with special moves, like the Cruyff Turn, French soccer legend Zinedine Zidane's famous Roulette Wheel, and my personal favorite, goalkeeper Jose Luis Chilavert's Supergolazo.  What's your favorite soccer special move?

Getting back to soccer anime we'd get another really good series in 1993's Aoki Densetsu Shoot!.  It's about a soccer-loving kid named Toshi, who transfers to a new school to follow his hero, upperclassman Kubo.  But when Kubo dies on the field after a harrowingly tough game, it's up to Toshi and his ragtag team to carry the memory of their captain to next year's campaign and a chance for victory.  English-language fan translations of this one abound.  1993 would also bring us Dragon League, which is hysterical and rad.  It's about a kid named Tokio who makes a magical journey to the enchanted land of Eleven-ia with his dad.  Because soccer teams have eleven players, get it?!  Ha!  A mishap results in dad being cursed and turned into a tiny dragon by the captain of the kingdom's most powerful team, the Eleven Winners.  Dragon League is a grand, soccer playing medieval fantasy epic.  Trust me, it works.  This actually got released subtitled in English on VHS by humble old Star Anime Enterprises-- well, a few episodes did, anyway.  Distribution problems meant that it didn't reach a lot of stores, so search carefully if you want to check it out.

1994 would bring us Soccer Fever, but, um, I haven't seen it.  I want to see it, it's a co-production between TMS and Italy's RAI that looks way different from most sports anime, but no English-language copies have survived (yes, it was dubbed and shown in Europe!).  That's all I can tell you about it.  If anyone's seen it, pipe up in the forums, won't you?  After '94, a year that saw the US host the World Cup, soccer anime took a long break until 2002.  That year, which featured the World Cup in South Korea and Japan, would bring us no less than three popular shows. One of them was a retelling/continuation of Captain Tsubasa.  Another was Whistle!, a hardy and reliable tale of Sho Kazamatsuri, a shrimpy kid who transfers to a new school because his old coach won't even consider playing a small dude like him.  But the thing about soccer is, you don't have to be especially big or fast or strong to excel; it's the most democratic of team sports, and it isn't long before Sho uses his speed and creativity to prove that on the field.  Whistle!'s anime version remains unreleased, but Viz have released the manga in its entirety.  It's not a bad read!

2002's final series was Hungry Heart - Wild Striker.  A new tale from Captain Tsubasa creator Takahashi, it chronicles Seisuke Kano, a transfer student (they're always transfer students) who stands in the tall shadow of his brother, an academy recruit at Italy's powerful AC Milan pro team.  Seisuke is a totally different kind of player-- bigger and more physical than his bro-- but his fundamentals aren't as strong, and this eats away at him.  However, meeting an absolutely fanatical player and fan of the sport named Miki reignites his interest.  I like this aspect of Hungry Heart; Captain Tsubasa featured a similar love interest, but while the original's Sanae was strictly a fan, Miki is the captain of the girls team.  Because, well, of course there's a girls team!  It's neat how things change, isn't it?

Soccer anime would hit the showers for another extended period after the giddy highs of 2002, but it returned in 2008 with Inazuma Eleven.  This series is actually based on a popular video game, and while the soccer action is fun and easy to follow, it's very strictly used as a vehicle for popular shonen anime and video game stereotypes.  It's about Mamoru Endou, a goalkeeper of DESTINY, young grandson of Japan's greatest ever keeper.  He wants to form a soccer team, but nobody seems interested, so he has to go out and recruit players.  And then battle evil.  The games that it's based on are actually action RPGs with a very good reputation, and it bums me out that they haven't been translated for North America. 

That brings us up to the present day, and Giant KillingGiant Killing is workmanlike and ugly and cheaply-animated, but to the adult soccer fan, it is unquestionably the most authentic and fascinating soccer anime yet produced.  It's about the game from the point of view of Takeshi Tatsumi, retired East Tokyo United star, as he returns to his team from managing a small-town, amateur English team (one that literally featured bakers and trash guys on the team; practice is Tuesday nights, mates!) to a crazy run in the FA Cup, England's most prestigious knockout tournament.  Tatsumi led this rag-tag, unpaid team to victory against some of the richest and most talented teams in the country.  But back in Japan, ETU are in a shambles; fan support is waning, sponsorship money is drying up, and the team sucks.  It's up to Tatsumi to use his unconventional methods to inspire his own personal Crazy Gang to compete-- and not just to survive, but to kill giants, to beat the best and richest teams in the land with their limited resources.  As someone who's sat through agreeable live-action soccer soap opera crap like Footballer's Wives and Dream Team, I'd venture to say that this is way better; it would work really well in English, and it'd be awesome if it found a home somewhere on video or TV in North America.

So, there you have it.  As you enjoy the World Cup, take some time to sample the rich variety of soccer anime.  Enjoying your sports and anime separately is pretty awesome, but it only gets better when you can mix the two.  I'm pretty pleased that so many soccer anime shows exist; the sport doesn't quite have a Mitsuru Adachi like baseball does, a monolithic creator who churns out massive baseball-themed hits left and right, but the genre is a scrapper and it seems to improve every time a new production is launched.



Finally, a dumb little story, apropos of nothing: Soccer can lead to amazing things.  Look at the above screenshot from Lupin the 3rd '78 episode two.  That's the New York Cosmos (cheekily called the New York Mammoths in the show), the famous NASL team of the 70s that starred the likes of Pele, his Brazilian countryman Carlos Alberto, and German World Cup Winner Franz Beckenbauer.  You can see a player leaning out next to Pele with a sweet 'stache, right?  Well, the Cosmos only had one famous player who always wore a mustache, and that was their goalkeeper, the USA's own Shep Messing, on the right.  See the resemblance?  The funny thing is...



...here's me and Shep at last year's MLS Cup.  Shep, who still does color commentary for Red Bull New York and is an onscreen host for Major League Soccer, was pleased to know that there's an anime version of him. The full story of how I got to stand on the field with the guy is interesting in itself. Until next time, let's go USA—and if my next column is late, it's because my wife has conned me into staying in Johannesburg for a few extra days.


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