In 2017, it comes as no surprise that the world’s greatest soccer players can be as popular and fun to watch on social media as they are on the pitch. So, when we realized that more than a few of our favorite footballers – from Messi and Iniesta to Vissel Kobe’s very own Lukas Podolski – were sharing their admiration for a Japanese player by the name of Captain Tsubasa, we decided to take a closer look.

If you’re a diehard football fan, you’re already on top of this but, for the rest of us, Captain Tsubasa is the fictional star of a Japanese manga series that bears his name. Originally created by artist Yoichi Takahashi in 1981, “Captain Tsubasa” is one of the most successful manga of all-time, with sales of over 82 million copies around the world. It has also been adapted into an animated TV series considered by many to be one of the best of all-time. To say that Captain Tsubasa is a global phenomenon might be an understatement.

So, what is it about Captain Tsubasa that inspires soccer stars even today? The manga centers on its titular character, Tsubasa Ozora, his passion for soccer and his ambition to not only become the world’s best player but to win the World Cup. Tsubasa overcomes one seemingly insurmountable challenge after another – often with awe-inspiring demonstrations of skill and always with the support of his family, friends, coaches and teammates. As lofty as Tsubasa’s goals are, aspiring young players can identify with them, making the series a compelling page-turner.

“I remember when I was a kid, we couldn’t find the signal really well on TV, but everyone in school was talking about this cartoon about football, from Japan” said Fernando Torres in an interview with the Daily Mail. “’I started playing football because of this, and because my brother forced me, and I loved the cartoon.”

And Captain Tsubasa creator Takahashi is probably one of the biggest soccer fans of all. Many of the world’s most famous players have been written into the manga, albeit with slight adjustments to their names. Fernando Torres became Fersio Torres, for example. Takahashi once said that Lionel Messi’s style of play is an ongoing source of inspiration. “I think the way he plays flows through me into Tsubasa naturally,” Takahashi said in an interview with FIFA. And Takahashi never tires of doing collaboration artwork with the world’s biggest teams.

For many, the appeal of the manga is its gravity-defying soccer tricks. The series draws the reader in with extraordinary goals and other moves on the pitch that push the boundaries of imagination. Even for a player of the stature of Lionel Messi, it’s probably unlikely that we’ll see a “Razor Shot” or a “Twin Shot” or a “Swift Recoil Cannon Kick” on the pitch of Camp Nou. That said, as fanciful or aspirational as some of the moves may seem, the J-League players featured in the links above have proven that they’re not all physically impossible. Perhaps that’s the very reason they spark the dreams of ambitious young readers.

One of the greatest fictional soccer stories ever told, “Captain Tsubasa”has inspired not only the world’s best players but children around the world and may even be able to take some credit for the swift rise of the game itself in Japan. Japan’s professional league, the J.League, was established in 1992 and Japan went on to make its first entry to the FIFA World Cup in 1998.

If you haven’t already, be sure to check out Captain Tsubasa on Kobo or follow superfan Lukas Podolski on Twitter, who never misses a chance to talk about his favorite manga series and author. His new Captain Tsubasa shoes are already seeing some gravity-defying action on the pitch for Vissel Kobe.