TOKYO: Japanese cartoon hero Captain Tsubasa inspired Lionel Messi and countless other football stars worldwide. Now its creator is laying down his pen and aiming for the top with his own real-life team.

Yoichi Takahashi began writing the comic strip about 11-year-old football prodigy Tsubasa Ozora in 1981 and saw it grow into a global smash hit spawning animated films, video games and even statues in his hometown in eastern Tokyo.

Known as “Holly e Benji” in Italy and “Super Campeones” in Spanish-speaking Latin America, the franchise was avidly read and watched by players such as Messi and Andres Iniesta on their way to superstar status.

Now Takahashi is preparing to wrap up the comic series and focus on a different passion -- attempting to lead his local non-league side into Japan's professional J-League in his role as owner.

The club were renamed Nankatsu SC -- after Captain Tsubasa's fictional school team -- when Takahashi came on board.

“I can do something new from here,“ the 62-year-old told AFP at his Tokyo studio, adorned with signed football shirts given to him by famous fans such as Iniesta and his former Spain team-mate Fernando Torres.

“It doesn’t mean that I’m completely stopping all creative work. I’d like to start something new in my own way while I still have the energy.”

Takahashi became hooked on football after watching the 1978 World Cup on TV.

He created Captain Tsubasa with the intention of helping to popularise the sport in Japan, which did not have a professional league at the time.

Now, more than 100 countries are believed to have tuned into the series and the stories have sold more than 70 million copies in book form in Japan and more than 10 million overseas.

“I had no idea that people around the world would see it,“ he said.

Captain Tsubasa Stadium?

Takahashi says the upcoming series of the comic will likely be the last he draws, although the beloved character will live on in other formats.

He says he is looking forward to being free of weekly deadlines and has “no bad feelings” about stopping.

Takahashi became involved with his local club 10 years ago and took over as owner in 2019, helping them rise to the fifth tier of the Japanese football pyramid.

Nankatsu are now just two promotions away from reaching J3, the third rung of the J-League.

Takahashi believes they can go all the way to the top flight but he says the essence of the club is more important than league position.

“In Europe it’s just natural that you support your local club, but we didn’t have that culture in Japan,“ he said.

“I didn’t have a local club so I wanted to create one myself.”

The J-League will kick off its 30th anniversary season later this month, and it has grown from 10 clubs in 1993 to 60 across three divisions.

Nankatsu's local government last month announced that it would buy land to build the club a new stadium, which they would need to gain J-League membership.

Takahashi says it could be named “Captain Tsubasa Stadium” and there are plans to include a museum of character memorabilia to attract tourists from all over the world.

The club have even recruited big-name players to help their promotion push, signing former Japan internationals Junichi Inamoto and Yasuyuki Konno.

Messi magic

Takahashi says being a club owner is “sometimes fun, but more often it’s difficult”.

“With a comic, you can shut yourself away in a room and draw it as you see it, but when you’re an owner, you have to meet a lot of people and come up with plans.”

He has played a big part in helping football culture take root in Japan, and believes there is room for it to grow further.

He thinks Japan can win the World Cup in his lifetime and he sees similarities between young national team forward Takefusa Kubo and Captain Tsubasa.

Takahashi was in Qatar to watch last year's World Cup final, and was happy to see Messi finally lift the trophy after years of trying.

But he says Captain Tsubasa’s ability to inspire is something that “doesn’t just go for superstar players”.

“Comics are something that, at heart, are for kids,“ he said.

“If a comic can have a positive impact on kids at that stage of their lives, then that makes me very happy.” - AFP