“This is the story of two young boys who dream of becoming the best soccer players in the world,” says the narrator in the first episode of the original 1983 anime. The protagonist, Tsubasa Ozora, stares longingly at a photo of the Italy World Cup-winning squad of 1982. A voiceover of a commentator asks, “When will Japan take part in the World Cup?” and Tsubasa replies, “One day, I’ll make that come true!”

His family relocate to Nankatsu, a quiet fictional city sitting right in front of Mount Fuji and facing the Pacific Ocean, and home to the best youth football team in Japan, Shuutetsu. Shuutetsu are the team of a private school and are captained by the goalkeeping prodigy Genzo Wakabayashi, whose ability to save everything that comes at him would put Gianluigi Buffon to shame.

Tsubasa ends up joining the underdogs, their poorer neighbours Nankatsu Public School, but predictably defies expectations with them. He is even referred to as the Soccer no Moshigo or ‘The Heaven-Sent Child of Soccer’ at the beginning of the comics and is saved quite literally by a football when a van nearly runs him over as a one year old. The ball acts as a shock absorber and Tsubasa bounces away to safety.

Over the course of the manga and the subsequent anime series, Tsubasa leads Japan to a World Cup, joins Barcelona (FC Catalunya in the anime) and is sidelined by a disciplinarian Dutch coach called Erick van Saal. His childhood friends and teammates follow him to various leagues around Europe. Wakabayashi moves to Germany with Hamburger SV and finds his arch nemesis in Karl-Heinz Schneider who plays for FC Bayern. The stubborn-but-good-at-heart striker Kojiro Hyuga, who wears his hair long and his shirts sleeveless, moves to Juventus and eventually finds himself helping AC Reggiana win promotion from Serie C to Serie B.

To say Captain Tsubasa is fascinating would be a betrayal of the vast universe that its creator Yoichi Takahashi has created with his pen. Replete with individual story arcs of trials, tribulations and redemption as well as references to football in the real world, Tsubasa is more than just a comic; it has been and still is an education and point of entry into the sport for millions of children across the world. It certainly was for me, as it was for professional footballers such as Lionel Messi, Zinedine Zidane, Alessandro del Piero, Andrés Iniesta and Fernando Torres to name but a few. Lukas Podolski, since his move to the J.League, has kitted up in boots adorned by the faces of Hyuga and Tsubasa.

Implicitly catalysing the love for football harboured by at least two generations, Takahashi’s influence is more profound than can be tangibly measured. But the cartoonist remains a man of few words, a lot of humility and, even after more than three decades of creating Tsubasa, endless love for the sport and the comic.

First of all, there have been a lot of manga and anime based on history and fantasy, but Captain Tsubasa was revolutionary in being based on football. How did you get the idea for a manga based on football, and was it easy to convince people to be interested in it?

I was very impressed and so excited when I watched the 1978 World Cup on TV. After that, I got the idea of a manga based on football and wanted to let Japanese people know how interesting football is.

The names of some of your characters and the teams, especially the European and South American ones, are based on real players and real teams. Do you think this allowed your manga/anime to be a vehicle for kids to start being interested in real-life football too?

Yes. Football has become very famous and popular in Japan now, so I thought real players are acceptable for kids to get to know.

That is actually how I fell in love in football - from watching Captain Tsubasa! And apparently, many successful footballers did so the same way. How does it feel to know just the influence you and your work have had, over not one but possibly two or three successive generations, helping them fall in love with football?

It’s a great honour for me. I think the reason is that each player has their unique character, skills and their own stories. They may be able relate to different characters and that someone like Iniesta still wears Nankatsu and Togo (fictional schools from Captain Tsubasa) is also an honour for me. He is one of the greatest players, not only for Barcelona, but ever.

It has been said that Tsubasa was inspired by Kazu. Is that true?

Actually I didn’t know Kazu when I started to write Captain Tsubasa. But he has been revolutionary for football in Japan and a huge influence on the Japanese. I deeply respect him for what he has done so far and for still playing football professionally at 50 years old.

Which footballer do you think is or was most similar to Tsubasa?

Lionel Messi is.

Would Tsubasa have been better than Messi?

It’s difficult to compare them. But Messi is able to play football in real life just as Tsubasa does and seems to be born in a manga world.

Ryan Giggs and David Beckham, for Manchester United in the 90s, re-created the ‘Twin Shot’. The different amazing shots in Captain Tsubasa were an iconic feature of the manga and anime especially. How did you come to think of these?

I’m so glad that shots in Captain Tsubasa have actually become real like that. I always have hoped that it should be realised when I create such skills – even if some of them seem unbelievable!

Something I actually didn’t know until quite recently was that the other major anime influence on me for football was also created by you – Hungry Heart! Hungry Heart dealt with more ‘realistic’ issues regarding footballers’ lifestyles, such as diet and discipline. There are many aspects of Hungry Heart that are brilliantly thought out and would actually be very good in training footballers. Specifically something like the part where Kano Kyosuke, despite being a striker, is forced to play in defence to learn and soon pre-empt the moves that a defender would make against him so he can act and react faster. Do you think of these training aspects and tactical situations yourself? Are you inspired by any coach or manager?

I thought of most of it by myself. Of course, I was inspired something by real football, but it’s not a particular coach or manager. As you said, I wanted to express the more realistic aspect of football unlike Tsubasa. Kyosuke not only has to deal with the expectations of a sportsman’s lifestyle but also complicated issues with family, friends and teammates, which is the case a bit less with Tsubasa.

The first thing that came to my mind when Keisuke Honda signed for AC Milan was that he had become a real-life Kano Seisuke [Kyosuke’s elder brother, who is also his role model. Kyosuke himself ends up joining Ajax]. Over the years that you have been following football, how do you think Japanese football and Japanese footballers have grown?

I’m so glad that some Japanese players have managed to join the big clubs in Europe. For the professional J.League to have been created and for Japan to participate in 6 consecutive World Cups are also a delightful gift for me.

Genzo was probably my favourite character, but a lot of Japan’s most successful footballers so far – Hidetoshi Nakata, Shunsuke Nakamura, Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa, for example – have all been attacking midfielders or strikers. Do you think that may partly be attributable to a Captain Tsubasa influence, since Tsubasa, Hyuga and Taro often played in those positions?

Well, it’s good for me if the reason is Tsubasa’s influence. But my idea is that it is mainly because of the physical attributes of the Japanese. Defenders and goalkeepers need more physicality and stature, more so than midfielders.

What are you looking forward to from Japan at the next World Cup?

I’d like to see Japan qualifying to the round of 16.

What is your motivation to keep drawing Tsubasa now? What keeps you going?

Tsubasa, Genzo and all other characters are moving by themselves, not because of me. They speak to me, ‘Mr Takahashi continue to write us please! We want to keep playing football!’