The question of how to adapt a sport into a story-driven medium isn’t as easy to answer as you’d initially assume. People fall in love with sport not just because it’s fun to watch but to share in the joy of winning with others, whether as a player or as a fan. Friendship and community on the turf and in the crowds are key to the appeal of the sport, and to adapt any sport into a scripted medium, you must capture this.
I love soccer. I fell in love with Sunderland AFC, my local soccer team in England, after being introduced to them by my grandparents, and it became a tradition to go together to every home match, whether rain or shine. Not only was it a chance to spend time with them, but going to the stadium regularly means you become friends with the people who you meet in and around the ground; it’s hard to put a price on the sense of community (and rivalry) this brings.
Far from being a successful team, Sunderland AFC is a long way from where they were even just a few years ago. Yet despite all that, I still can’t help falling in love with them, and I like to celebrate and commiserate Sunderland’s topsy-turvy soccer adventures with others. The game of soccer is almost secondary to the human connections that form around it. Soccer brings people together, as they all exist together as a single entity cheering their team to victory, celebrating that last-minute goal or feat of skill together.
With that in mind, how do you portray sport in a way that captures these emotions? I want to explore the various ways Japanese anime and manga have attempted to capture soccer’s human core, whether they are grounded in realism like Giant Killing or through a fantastical interpretation filled with over-the-top special moves.
Taken to the Extreme: Using Fantasy to Enhance the Joy of Soccer
If the reason someone becomes invested in soccer is the sense of rivalry and community that surrounds the sport, why not take advantage of being freed from the restraints of reality that anime and manga provides and incorporate more fantastical elements that serve to emphasize these aspects?
Inazuma Eleven is a popular multimedia franchise from Level-5 that follows a middle-school football team from formation to glory. In the series, players use supernatural abilities to shift the tide of the match. For example, if a shot looks particularly difficult to save, Endou Mamoru (Mark Evans in English) could use Ijigen the Hand to block the ball, while Goenji Shuuya (Axel Blaze in English) could use Fire Tornado to rain powerful shots down on his opponents.
By relying on these techniques at the most intense and influential moments of the match as game-winning super moves, the series can capture the rush of emotions felt from your favorite team scoring a last-minute winner or making a last-ditch defensive effort by representing these feats of skill as extravagant elemental special moves.
Of course, before Inazuma Eleven, there was Captain Tsubasa. This iconic soccer franchise is one of the biggest anime and manga franchises in the world and has been a household name in Japan ever since bursting onto the scene in Weekly Shonen Jump in 1981. Not only was the series popular in Japan, but the anime was also a major hit in Europe thanks to being shown on children’s TV in countries like Italy.
Like Inazuma Eleven, this series relies on special moves that shift the direction of a match, although the abilities of characters in Captain Tsubasa aren’t quite as supernatural as the likes of Fire Tornado. Since it’s difficult to capture the unpredictability of a fluke goal or referee’s decision in a scripted story, special moves like Tsubasa’s Drive Shot allows him to shift the tide of a match without it feeling unearned, all while creating iconic moments that linger in the memory long after the story is over.
I can think of countless similar moments from my time as a Sunderland fan, but one that stands out in particular to me came in 2014 when a last-minute goalkeeping error set in motion a series of events that led to a League Cup final for the first time in 30 years. While the moment itself was a stroke of luck, it was hardly unearned, but it’s difficult to capture similar circumstances such as those through manga and anime. Special moves alleviate this.
Captain Tsubasa has a unique place in this discussion by not only being a series that captures the passionate nature of soccer, but it’s also a series that made people who weren’t interested in it before fall in love with the game, nudging some to even become soccer players themselves. It inspired a rise in popularity for the sport in a country where it struggled to find a home before. While relying on fantasy, it used these fantastical elements to capture the intensity and passion that made the sport so appealing.
Down to Reality: Putting People, Not Powers, at the Heart of the Story
On the other end of the spectrum, more realistic sports series stick far closer to the rules of the game and rely more heavily on exaggerated personal drama and team rivalries to capture the sport. When I think of such a series, I immediately think about Giant Killing (available in English through Kodansha USA).
Part of the reason Giant Killing is so appealing to me is that it understands the community aspect of soccer better than any other example I could raise. Following the fictional East Tokyo United, this underdog team in Japan’s pro league is seeking to make its way to the top by using unconventional tactics from an unconventional manager and a team with a hunger for victory.
The very first chapter is a brilliant self-contained story that sets out the thesis statement for the rest of Giant Killing to follow. Manager Tatsumi left East Tokyo United earlier in his career and, now retired, he manages an English 5th-division team who are having a run as giant killers in the FA Cup by beating higher-division opponents. This chapter emphasizes the local nature of the team he manages in England, with fans and a team of amateurs working together on a single-minded goal, matching it to the team he’s set to join back in Japan.
Everyone involved in East Tokyo United cares about the team, and that means everyone has a piece of themselves riding on the team’s success. Fans are anxious when they aren’t winning and ownership, all fans themselves, want to do everything they can to make the team a success. Matches in Giant Killing may lack fancy special moves, but they more than compensate for this in heart and character. We watch the players train and overcome, and we see the team themselves reach out to the local community to bring them onto their side to lend their support, all working together for success.
This is what reminds me most of my local team. Unlike many American sports where franchising makes teams and history transferable between regions, every soccer team in England has a connection to their hometown, and this is particularly true of Sunderland. As a region often overlooked when it comes to national politics, many look towards their team as a point of local pride. With higher levels of poverty and an economy that never recovered from Conservative government closures of the mines in the 1980s, soccer is also an escape. Recognizing this, the team invests heavily in the local community, and success for Sunderland energizes the entire region in response.
Whether using crazy special moves or internal monologues and personal rivalries, anime and manga use their characters and world to represent an exaggerated interpretation of the community aspects that make soccer as a sport appealing to so many people. Feats of skill are only part of the equation, and whether through flashy moves or local pride, each series uses strong characters to capture the values of friendship and community that define soccer as a sport.
Soccer is only as good as the people that drive it. Whether it be Captain Tsubasa or Giant Killing, these anime and manga series understand that, and that’s what makes them so great at representing soccer as a sport.