The Argentinian Jorge Valdano, a FIFA World Cup™ winner at Mexico 1986 and renowned football intellectual, once said of Brazil’s Romario: “He plays like a footballer from an animated cartoon.” The compliment attests to the legendary striker’s ability to score goals that seemed to defy the laws of physics – much the same way the cartoon football characters did in Japanese animation back in the 1980s.

It was around this time that football and animated cartoons began a two-way relationship that has only deepened over time. With the partnership showing no signs of abating, took a look back at some of the many examples of it in popular culture.

Going global
It is very probable that when Valdano made his comment about O Baixinho he was referring to Captain Tsubasa, perhaps the most popular footballing animated series to date. Originally a Japanese comic strip, the series was brought to the screen with the backing of the country’s football association, who hoped it would help promote the sport. The immensely popular programme has crossed innumerable cultures and become a global phenomenon, making the main character, Tsubasa Ozora, and his team-mates and rivals, household names for an entire generation.

Indeed, when the Brazilian centre-back Alex scored a sensational free-kick for Paris Saint-Germain against Montpellier in the French league last February, the opposition goalkeeper mused afterwards: “What happened with that shot? The ball just completely changed direction. I asked myself if they’d somehow brought in Mark Lenders without my knowledge.” The Lenders in question, of course, was one of Tsubasa’s arch enemies, known to fans of the series for his fearsome shooting power.

That said, there is no shortage of Cristiano Ronaldo fans out there who argue that their hero can actually create that affect without the need for animation. However, diehard fans of the series tend to associate Tsubasa more with Lionel Messi, and identify the Real Madrid striker with his alter-ego Lenders. As far as we know, neither of the two mega-stars have weighed in on the debate, leaving followers to make up their own minds.

Scientific studies and diffusion of genre
Of course, there has always been a degree of artistic license used in the making of Captain Tsubasa and similar shows, but it is less well known that the characters’ super-powered shots and interminable runs towards distant horizons have been the subject of scientific studies. One, for example, tried to determine the size of the football pitches. Assuming that Tsubasa was 1.70m tall and that a person of that height would see the horizon at a distance of around 4.5km, the pitch was deemed to be a mind-boggling 18km long!

Though less popular than Captain Tsubasa, there have been several other animes involving football that have captivated fans of the genre. One such offering was Ganbare, Kickers!, which also revolved around a young kid and his football team. Despite being hugely popular in its country of origin, Japan, it lacked the international appeal of its predecessor. Goal Field Hunter, in contrast, was a Franco-Japanese creation about the adventures and mishaps of a young Italian footballer. And though not particularly popular in Italy, it did prove a mainstream hit in France and Spain as well as their regions of influence.

Hurricanes was also the result of a multi-national cooperation, this time involving producers from England, Scotland and USA, almost the only markets where it eventually aired in the mid 1990s. What set it apart was the fact that its main protagonist was a woman, one Amanda Carey. More recent launches include the Japanese-produced Inazuma Eleven which, with its strong focus on the need for teamwork to achieve good results, is still running at present.

From the pitch to the small screen
Quite a number of real players have had their own animated cartoon series on TV, whether inspired by their sporting achievements or popularity. Brazil leads the field in this respect, with stars such as Pele, Ronaldinho and, soon, Neymar, portrayed as children. “The idea is for ‘Neymarzinho’ not just to play football, but also to talk about sports, family, education and culture,” said Mauricio de Souza, the famous Brazilian caricaturist and the project’s promoter.

Among the productions inspired by genuine sporting achievements, we could not fail to mention Wilad El Eih, an animated series that began broadcasting in Egypt in 2010 in the aftermath of the country’s triumph at that year’s CAF Africa Cup of Nations. The programme, which features several of that championship-winning side as well as their coach Hassan Shehata, proved such a hit that a second series went on air in 2011.

It is also commonplace to see cartoon characters of famous footballers appearing in series unrelated to the sport. The Simpsons and Family Guy, two North American shows famous for their alternative takes on family life, have featured footballers in a number of episodes. In the former, for example, a pitchside Pele can be seen reading out product advertisements before an international game, while the latter famously depicted Zinedine Zidane as a delivery man who head-butted the recipient of a birthday cake.

However, these types of cameos are not exclusive to western culture, and not always acerbic. Japanese international Yuji Nakazawa, who competed at the last two FIFA World Cups, caused a sensation in his homeland when he appeared in a local anime called Shi Chan. In it the defender played the part of a recluse who teaches the main character and his friends some footballing skills. And while the scenes are spliced with references to some of the player’s real-life travails, he took it all with a sense of humour.

Perhaps you can think of other series where football and animation have gone hand in hand. Why not let us know by using the ‘Add your comment’ button?