Unique for a soccer anime. Admittingly, the only other soccer anime I ever liked was "Whistle!". I didn't find Captain Tsubasa exciting, Area no Kishi was so-so for me (it eventually got to the point where there were too many characters to keep track of, like most sports anime tend to get).
Ginga, though, is different. It does have its down sides, and isn't as good as "Whistle!", but each and every chararacter on the team has personality.
I did give the animation a low score because of repeated footage; not just in different episodes, but the same episodes that it was obvious to me on the first time watching it that they used footage from before. It didn't occur often, but enough for me to dock the score a bit.
The anime feels unique even though it does have some of the same trials and rivalries that sports anime have, so I'll break it down.
"Our goal is to be number one in the galaxy!"
It all revolves around that phrase. It's an odd goal for a 12 year old soccer team, as they'd be disbanded when the kids all graduate and go their separate ways in junior high.
It starts off with the spirited yet not-very-good protagonist who has to gather up another 10 members of the team because the 6th grade team disbanded. From there, it's the kids learning to work together and accept each other as teammates, as well as grow mentally and physically.
All of the focus is on the main characters, with the occasional rival on other teams (a nice change of pace from sports anime that focus on more than one player on the other team, and features a rival in each and every team the main group faces; not in Ginga).
They struggle as a 11-man team, then down to an 8-man team that struggles to become national champions so they can go to Spain and compete.
There's a side-plot that occurs later on, during the 8-man team saga, in the others helping one of the characters to find his father.
Very simple story, but a lot of trials, tears, conflict, and laughter on the way.
If I had to point out one thing that makes up Ginga, it would be its characters. The first segment with the 11-man team focused on 9 out of those 11 members. For the first time, I could actually name each and every character out there (with the exception of the two 5th grade members on the 6th grade team, since they didn't get much limelight).
Everything is on the characters, especially the ones that went on to complete the 8-man team. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that the characters make the show; if it wasn't for the dynamic characters with distinctive personalities and looks that makes it easy to tell them apart (which is difficult to do in any anime, particularly sports ones where some characters seem to blend into one another or the background), Ginga wouldn't be nearly as interesting.
Due to the fact that we're shown who will be on the main team in the opening song of the very first episode, I doubt there are much spoilers ahead. I won't spoil the ending, of course.
First, the protagonist. Shou Outa is a (very) loud kid with unending spirit and determination, though he's not very good at soccer and does have times when he needs to be picked up by the rest of the team (like in one game where he got a yellow card). He's declared the captain, as he's the one that brought the team back together, and he slowly gets better at soccer (especially after playing Blind Soccer), but not overly so.
The second character to make an appearance is Erika Takatou. She's a spirited girl that speaks in Kansai-ben as she's from Osaka, and is very good with speed and challenging the opponent no matter if they're a boy or if they're taller than her. Her dog, Zach/Zack, also makes frequent appearances.
Reika Saionji makes an early appearance as a classmate, but is the last member recruited for the team by Erika. At first, she sees soccer as something that could be fun and a good way to diet (which angers another member), but then discovers that she loves the game and has a talent for jumping into spaces.
Then, there are the triplets, who all have their own personalities:
Kouta Furuya is the most intense of the three, and obviously wants to go pro. He has a killer shoot, and hates to lose. He's actually fairly straight forward as compared to the other two. He clashes with Reika at first, but then eventually accepts her; their odd relationship is an interesting thing to see in the series.
Ouzou Furuya is perhaps the least dedicated of the triplets (as we only see him get really serious once or twice), though he later develops an "eagle eye" due to the results of Blind Soccer. He's the playmaker along with Shou, though he often plays defense with the protagonist. Like his brothers, his playstyle is advanced.
Ryuuji Furuya is probably the most "twisted" of the three, and is able to read his opponents and put spin on the ball so that it creates "own goals", bouncing off a defender's foot or leg to go past the keeper and score. He also uses this skill to pass the ball at one time, and another, create a PK by hand-ball (bounced off the opponent's leg and into his hand). He's more mathematically oriented, like his father, which later shows when he starts running their plays and statistics through a simulation created by their father.
Aoto (Takuma Aoto Gonzalez) starts out as a rival during the 11-man team saga, and is later recruited by Erika and the rest of the team for their 8-man team. Though he's short, he uses that to get in his opponent's blind spots (which isn't actually featured, but the way he moves around the taller opponents leaves them baffled) and is excellent at getting past opponents one-on-one to score. He doesn't talk much, and at first has a huge rivalry with Kouta that actually interferes with team play. He wants to go to Spain in hopes that playing soccer there will help him find his father (who's a soccer player somewhere there).
Tagi Sugiyama is the very tall keeper, who is excellent at his job of defending the goal. He originally quit soccer because he thought he was bad at it (when really, it was just a growth spurt that made him clumsy). He is friends with Aoto, and eventually gains the confidence to join the new Predators 8-man team. He's typically calm and laid back, calling encouragements to the others and occasionally spilling some of Aoto's secrets to the team (like his desire to find his father, and his birthday) since Aoto won't do it and Tagi sees no harm in doing so.
Another important character is the coach, Masaru Hanashima, who used to be a pro known as the "Lightening Light" (due to his strong and fast kick, which Kouta started to copy when he saw it) until an injury forced him to quit. He coached soccer once before for a kid's team, and due to a tragic incident, swore never to do it again. That doesn't deter Shou or the others from relentlessly following him around until he finally agreed to coach them, and during the 11-man team, there's still some lingering worry he carries around. He's a rather hands-off coach, preferring to let the kids figure things out for themselves in order for them to grow. Otherwise, he also has a straight-forward personality.
There are more characters and supporting characters, like the "3-U" on the 11-man team, three childhood friends that like soccer but are supposed to focus on entrance exams for junior high, all with their last names starting with "U".
The characters are what makes the anime, as it would have become very dull very quickly without them. In fact, even into episode 39 (the final episode), the characters didn't stop growing (mentally and physically).
The characters are easy to get into; there's probably at least one character that someone can associate with. For me, it was Reika (though I never had a weight problem), I was that shy kid that started out on defense with little confidence, and then moved to an offense position that can also cover defense with growing confidence.
Though there are a lot of solid points, there are a couple minus points that I have to address.
First, is that there is a lot of talking during matches. That's not something I want to see. I don't mind if it's talking strategy or pep-talks, or trying to get someone's head back in the game, or even the smack-talk that's occasionally done (or frequently done, between Ouzou and Kageura in their final match).
For people that love soccer and already know the rules, positions, etc, there are some boring spots as there's the occasional explanation, such as when the father of the triplets explained Dango Soccer to Shou's mother and sister. A scramble in front of the goal; it didn't need that much talking. There was also the final match with Amarillo that had commentators, and a couple times, the action was interrupted by them talking about the match.
That bugged me and felt like they were just drawing out the episode to make the match longer. If all that talking was cut out, the final Amarillo match could have concluded at least one episode earlier.
A plus side to the soccer matches was that they were realistic. Each member of the team has a strong point (or super-skill), and meshed together, they became a super-team. Yet, it was still realistic. I remember my soccer days when I was 12; the things that they are doing is completely believable (granted, I never saw anyone who aimed at putting spin on the ball so that the opponents scored on themselves, but for the most part, it's accurate).
Even the triplets, who brought a whole new level of play to the game as geniuses, had their stumbling points and limits that made the characters feel human. Nobody went from zero to hero, which is another major plus. The entire anime occurs when the characters are 12; in less than a year, exponential growth would be unbelievable. The characters did grow in mentality and skill, but through trials and walls they had to go over or through, and they didn't suddenly become super stars or overpowered players.
There are also the realistic plays. For even a team of 12 year olds (though actual plans typically started after that age), it's not uncommon for there to at least be some semblance of a game plan to get around a defense, or even how to throw off a mark.
There weren't many filler episodes; any episode that was akin to a "filler" still had to do with soccer and the characters.
It's also interesting to see a primary school team; most sports anime feature the protagonists in either junior high or high school (the latter more typical in baseball anime). This is an unusual one that has the group in primary school where they know that they won't all be on the same team forever; this is their first and last time as a team before they choose which junior high school they'll go to and if they want to continue to play after going.
I'd recommend this anime to soccer fans, and even people that aren't huge fans of soccer as much of the plays and terms are explained over the course of the series (which is boring talk to those that are soccer fans or players, since we already know about it).
It's not the best soccer anime out there, but I'd rank it second out of the soccer animes I've seen, right under "Whistle!". It's especially easy to watch, now, that the anime is complete (though, at the time of this review, only subs for episode 34 are out...but there's no more wait for new episodes or cliffhangers). New viewers can go through the entire anime without having to wait a week (or more, as during the holiday times, there was a 3-week break from it) for the next episode.