If you ask James Rodriguez, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi who their soccer idols were when they were growing up, they’ll probably list the usual suspects: Maradona, Ronaldo Nazario or Zidane. But there’s one name they usually don’t mention, who towers above them all. A player whose magical skills and never say die attitude made them dream of becoming stars and winning the World Cup for their countries.
His name is Oliver Atom and he’s the greatest footballer to never exist.
Atom (Tsubasa Oozora in the original) is the main character in the anime Captain Tsubasa (known in Latin America as Súpercampeones and in Europe as Oliver & Benji), a Japanese boy with great talent for soccer who dreams of becoming the best player in the world. The series follows him from elementary school, where he meets and challenges those who will become his teammates, through his breakthrough as a local and international star, to his role leading the Japanese national team in their quest to win the World Cup.
The series, which started as a manga in 1981, is known and loved for its elaborate and spectacular plays. They’re impossible to replicate in real life, but too amazing not to feel inspired by. In one episode, the brothers Koriotto (Tachibana in the original), surprise Atom and his friends by running past them and using the goal posts to propel themselves in the air and score from above in a parkour-like move.
The series also plays with time and space. In a real-life game, players can cross the field in as little as 10 seconds, but in Súpercampeones, the same action can take a whole 30 minute episode. This is how “longer than a Súpercampeones field” became a popular cultural reference – so much so that it even prompted a Japanese physics student to work out that the characters must play on an 18-kilometer field. (Although this was debunked by the series creatir, Yoichi Takahashi, who explained in an interview with the Spanish daily Sport that the field actually has the same dimensions as real life ones, but we’re seeing the action from different perspectives.) “The player is running, but it’s also thinking at the same time. And the same happens with the defender. It wasn’t just to try to explain what was happening in the field, but also explaining the players inner world. That takes time and you have to visualize it… maybe because of that the field seemed so long,” he said with a laugh.
That attention to the emotional part of the game was one of the keys to its success. Any kid watching Atom, his goalkeeper friend Benji Price and their Rival Steve Hyuga (Genzo Wakabayashi and Kojiro Hyuga in the original) could empathize with the challenges they faced – rivals stronger or more skilled than them, doubts about their own abilities and pressure to succeed to help their families – and find inspiration in the way they overcame them.
Fernando Torres, the Spanish striker who won a World Cup and a European championship credits Oliver & Benji for making him fall in love with soccer. “I remember when I was a kid, we couldn’t find the signal very well on TV, but everyone in school was talking about this cartoon about soccer, from Japan.[…] I started playing soccer because of that,” he said. Alessandro del Piero, World Champion with Italy in 2006, also was a big fan and was reportedly very excited when Takahashi drew him in the manga style of his creations. In recent years, James Rodriguez also was immortalized in the same way, much to his and the fans delight.
The influence of Súpercampeones goes beyond the professionals. When Takahashi created the manga, Japan only had a semi-professional league and 4% of its population played soccer. The manga was published in Weekly Shonen Jump, a popular magazine that also published Dragon Ball and had a circulation of more than 2,5 million at the time, which gave it the exposure it needed to thrive. As the generation that grew up alongside Oliver Atom came into adulthood, so did soccer fandom in Japan. In fewer than 20 years, the county created a competitive league, qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 1998, and organized the 2002 tournament along with South Korea. It also won the Women’s World Cup in 2011. The country is now considered the most successful Asian team in the world.
Takahashi and his creations have been supporting their country along the way. On the road to the 2002 World Cup, he premiered a series where Atom and his friends realize their dream of playing the World Cup, which was used as a promotional tool for the tournament. For this year’s World Cup, he launched a reboot of the series, which promises to include real life players like Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi, James and “Chicharito” Hernández.
When Japan defeated Colombia in the group stage of the World Cup, Takahashi proudly indicated that Japan had used “The Birdcage,” one of the techniques that Atom’s rivals used to stop him from scoring, to great effect. A whole generation of fans worldwide understood the reference immediately and nodded in approval. After Japan’s impressive run in Russia, and the new series, Oliver Atom has a new chance to dazzle and inspire a new crop of soccer stars.