In the footsteps of Captain Tsubasa, Manchester United-bound Shinji Kagawa continues to inspire a nation

The star's rise from the J-League's second division to the Premier League mirrors that of a fictional player whose career began in 1981 - and continues even today
By Dan Orlowitz | Japanese Football Editor

When Japan captain Makoto Hasebe compared team-mate Shinji Kagawa’s Manchester United signing to something out of a comic book he would have read as a child, he was not exaggerating. For before Japan’s multiple Asian Cup championships, before a 40-team J-League and a regular stream of players to Europe, before ‘Samurai Blue’ became a household name, there was Captain Tsubasa.

Those who have followed the tale of phenom Tsubasa Ozora from his schoolboy days all the way to the starting lineup at Camp Nou may know it by other names such as Flash Kicker in the US, Captain Majed in the Middle East, or Supercampeones in South America.  Beginning with its 1981 serialisation in Weekly Shonen Jump, Tsubasa spawned TV animations, movies, video games, and several spin-offs, remaining until this day one of the country’s most famous pop culture creations and paving the way for recent football titles such as Inazuma Eleven and Ginga e no Kickoff.

"In a country where teamwork and cooperation are emphasised, Tsubasa's conversion to midfielder inspired an entire generation to follow suit"

Yet in addition to inspiring players such as Alessandro Del Piero, Fernando Torres, and Masashi 'Gon' Nakayama, the comic had an all-too-real effect on Japan’s footballing culture. In a country where teamwork and co-operation are often emphasised over individual stardom, the main character's conversion from striker to midfielder inspired an entire generation to do the same, resulting in a glut of wingers, but a severe deficit of defenders. Even today, the national team’s centre-backs are converted midfielders, and J-League teams often rely on Brazilian strikers at the top of their formation.

But it’s in no small part due to this shift that Japan has been graced with stars such as Hidetoshi Nakata, Shunsuke Nakamura, Keisuke Honda, and now Shinji Kagawa. The significance of the 23-year-old’s move to Old Trafford could clearly be seen on Friday night at Saitama Stadium, as thousands wore his blue No.10 shirt and chanted his name throughout all 90 minutes of a 6-0 blowout of Jordan.

He delivered an all-too-appropriate performance, leaving Jordan’s defenders frazzled with his dribbling technique and scoring Japan’s fourth goal of the match in the 35th minute. While Honda may have captured headlines with a superb hat-trick, this too is a study in contrast: Honda’s avarice for playing in the Champions League left him stagnating in the Russian Premier League, but Kagawa’s quiet samurai-like determination at Cerezo Osaka and Borussia Dortmund has brought him all the way to England.

        Onward & upward | Kagawa's dream move to Manchester United could be the beginning

Kagawa has certainly come under criticism for jumping to the Premier League after two title-winning seasons with Borussia Dortmund. But when fans bicker over career stats and cynical accusations of marketing ploys while they dream of their club fielding a perfect lineup, it’s often forgotten that the players themselves are human and have dreams of their own. Sometimes they come from comic books and fairy tales, but sometimes inspiration can be found at the nearest stadium.

Any English teacher in Japan will readily offer that one of the hardest lessons to teach elementary schoolers is how to tell others what they want to be when they grow up. This isn't because the the grammar or pronunciation are particularly difficult, but rather because unlike in the West, Japanese students are so reluctant to reveal their true calling.

Perhaps it's because they belong to a society that discourages individuality, where the nail that stands up gets hammered down just as quickly. Or maybe it's because when they think of what they want to be when they grow up, they think of their parents, who are more often than not office workers and stay-at-home mothers just as their parents were before them.

"Young Japanese footballers, with their Barcelona pencil cases and Arsenal shirts, had few idols from their native land who they could hope to emulate"

When it came to sports, baseball fans could look up to the likes of Ichiro Suzuki and Daisuke Matsuzaka, while swimmers had Kosuke Kitajima and figure skaters admired Mao Asada. But young Japanese footballers, with their Barcelona pencil cases and Arsenal shirts, had few idols from their native land who they could hope to emulate.

That is, until now, when Japan’s No.10 decided to follow his childhood dream. In the coming years, when teachers across the country ask their students what they want to be when they grow up, one phrase is sure to come up frequently:

"I want to play for Manchester United, like Shinji Kagawa."

Do you think Shinji Kagawa will be a success at Manchester United? Let us know...

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