Having proved it has depth far beyond the ambition of most sports series already, Ginga e Kickoff manages to ratchet it up another couple of notches with what may be the most philosophical episode of a sports series I can recall – certainly a soccer-based one. This is al all-ages show about a kids soccer team, and it manages to present the kids in a consistently energetic, humorous and fun manner. But this is also a show that operates on a completely different level too, with a keen understanding of human nature and a real interest in exploring the nature of the game it portrays.
The vehicle for all the philosophical debate this time is a visit from Masaru-chan-san to his old coach, now working as a “technical advisor” for their old team, Chiba Thunderbolts. From the beginning it’s clear that this isn’t a meeting that Masaru is looking forward to – there are a lot of bad memories connected to the Thunderbolts complex, and not just about his own injury and forced retirement. Masaru-chan-san was apparently a bit of a “twisted” player himself – relying heaving on his “lightning light”, refusing to defend, or attack via slow build-up, and altogether seemingly contributing to his coach’s current hairline.
The reason for the visit is of course the question of the Triplets and gentlemanly soccer, nurtured by the concerns their father has about their play, but the discussion goes much deeper than that. There are a lot of phrases tossed around that non soccer-fans probably won’t have heard – “A king and ten followers”, “Defend with ten, attack with eight” – and it’s clear that as a striker Masaru turned a deaf ear to the demands of his coach and became a problem player. When he shows the coach the DVDs of the Predators, things get really interesting – the coach says that Ouzou should have gotten a yellow card for the own goal incidents, and says that the Furuyas – while “monsters” – aren’t good enough to get the team past the city tournament.
The other major concept at play here is “Total Football”. The term has been around since the 1950’s but it really came to the world’s attention with the 1974 World Cup, where a Dutch team led by legendary center forward Johann Cruyff employed it and managed to beat the legendary Brazilian team led by Pele. But it had already been employed to great success by the Dutch club team Ajax, and Cruyff himself would later take it to Camp Nou (remember Ginga’s original pre-open) when he became manager of F.C. Barcelona. The idea as Cruyff promoted it as a player was of a center forward that would move all over the pitch in order to create problems for the opposition, with all ten teammates adjusting their position in turn. The essence of Total Football is creating space, and players constantly switching positions. It’s still used today in a somewhat evolved form known as “tiki-taka”, by Barca and the Spanish National team – which won the 2012 UEFA Championships while rarely employing a true striker at all, some of their most sparkling attacking coming from young left back Jordi Alba.
What’s clear here is that Hanashima-san didn’t go to his old coach for a scolding, and to walk away convinced. Rather, he seems intent to let the Furuyas be themselves – to “score however possible”, and gentlemanliness by damned. Whether he agrees with his old coach about the need for the Predators to move away from reliance on the Triplets and play total football remains to be seen, but he does lend Ryuji the VHS (!) copy of the ‘74 Dutch team in action that his coach had given him. The show is not looking for easy, black and white answers here – because none exist. Masaru is finding his own way as a coach, and letting the Furuyas find theirs as a player. But that doesn’t mean they don’t pose problems that he’ll have to address, because they do.
Before he leaves Chiba Hanashima-san has a memorable encounter with Youhei, the boy whose grievous injury he blames himself for, and thus the reason why he quite coaching. This encounter is surprising in every way – starting with the fact that it happens at all, out of the blue, right through the enormous emotional punch it packs both for Masaru-san and the audience. Youhei has regained a little of his eyesight, and plays a special type of soccer for the visually impaired – and well-enough to be the ace of the team. Rather than blaming Masaru for what happened, Youhei worried about him, and whether his coach still loved soccer – and this, above everything else about the encounter, shakes Masaru to the core. He’s obviously struggling to keep it together throughout his conversation with the teenager, and once he’s left the training facility he finally breaks down and lets out all the grief that’s been eating at him since that terrible day.
It seems as if this marks an important transition for the series, as Masaru is finally at peace with who he is and confident oh what he wants to do as a coach. And there’s a new level of understanding between he and the Triplets, especially Ryuuji, who shows him a vulnerable side we haven’t seen before. The next step, surely, must be for Shou’s character to confront the disconnect between his role as a leader and his contributions as a player. There’s a lot of humor attached to this early on in ther ep as he’s mocked for not scoring, and becomes a go-between for three girls smitten with the Triplets, but it’s a serious issue and it surely weighs on Shou heavily. Shou is the main character here, and it seems time for the series to return its focus to him for a while – the struggle of the average kid to achieve something special being the original them the series revolved around.