Know anything about the Tokyo regional league third division? Thought not. Know anything about Captain Tsubasa? No? Well you should. From Lionel Messi to Yabecchi FC to Alessandro Del Piero to Fernando Torres, you aren’t anything in the modern football world unless you know about the diminutive Tsubasa Ozora, star of the aforementioned Captain Tsubasa comic series.
The place in which Tsubasa developed those feelings of wonder associated with football was area of Nankatsu, which isn’t a real place. But what is real is that a group of forward thinking, high dreaming people are intent on making the name famous for being a J.League side. Michael Hudson gives us the lowdown on the people who want to turn fiction into reality.
Six promotions separate the lowest rung of Japanese professional football from the 70-minute fixtures in the third division of the Tokyo Shakaijin Soccer League. It was there I first came across Nankatsu SC, watched by 100 or so fans sitting on picnic mats and camping chairs, playing an office team called Jam FC. The Tokyo-based side are not quite your usual aspirants for a place in J3.
For starters, the club represents a geographical area that doesn’t actually exist. Formed as recently as 2012, Nankatsu took their name from the fictional city where Captain Tsubasa grew up dreaming of becoming the greatest footballer in the world. Nankatsu was loosely based on Katsushika, the real-life Tokyo neighbourhood that remains home to Tsubasa’s creator Yōichi Takahashi, a manga artist who played a crucial role in the growth of Japanese football from relative obscurity in the early-1980s to co-hosting the World Cup in 2002. “When I first started writing I dealt a lot with baseball, but there were lots of baseball manga out there at the time so I thought I might as well go with soccer, a mostly unexplored sport. When I started, even ‘World Cup’ was an unfamiliar term,” he told an interviewer before the national team’s fifth successive appearance in the competition at Brazil 2014.
Takahashi was one of Nankatsu’s most important early signings, becoming president of the supporters’ club in 2013. “The pursuit of dreams is the main theme of Tsubasa,” he said. “I hope our team will never give up.” Joining 71 other club sides in the Tokyo League’s third division, the amateur footballers were captured by an NHK documentary team “struggling to juggle full-time work and soccer but practising hard to live up to the team name” before they’d played their first game of the 2014 season.
The campaign began spectacularly, 40 goals scored in eight successive league victories, but a pair of mid-season losses meant the club narrowly missed out on a place in the second tier. It was a hard blow: first announced in 2008, Katsushika’s J.League project had envisaged the team playing professional football by 2020. “We didn’t achieve our target,” said club official and former J.League executive Yosuke Tanaka, “but we did take a big first step.”
Creator Takahashi gets the VIP treatment in Barcelona (pic: fcbarcelona.com)
Champions in 2015, Tanaka was already looking outside of Japan to help further develop the club. Early in the year Nankatsu set up a football school in Hawaii, paired up with Sao Paulo State League club Ituano FC and sent Takahashi to sign a partnership agreement with 1935 Copa del Rey finalists CE Sabadell FC which has since resulted in first team players training at the Spanish third-tier side.
Back in Tokyo, Nankatsu continue to split their home games between a public park near the JR Joban Line’s Kanamachi Station and the municipal Katsushika Sogo Sports Centre, whose 1,000-capacity main stand overlooks the Nakagawa River a 15-minute walk south of Keisei Aoto. Although the 2020 target was overly ambitious – Nankatsu currently fourth of 14 clubs in one of the second division’s three parallel groups and still five promotions away from J3 – the club’s backers remain determined to emulate Machida Zelvia, Tokyo League champions in 2005, while simultaneously developing “the premier soccer club in Hawaii”. A tall order, perhaps, but with Captain Tsubasa behind them anything is possible for Nankatsu SC.
If lower league football across the world is your thing, Michael’s blog is THE place for you: http://theaccidentalgroundhopper.blogspot.jp/
And if you want to see J.Leaguers trying some Captain Tsubasa skills…..