Today, Japanese pros in men’s and women’s soccer credit Oha Suta and KoroKoro as key parts of their soccer education. Keisuke Honda watched the show, and Byer worked with Tadanari Lee as a boy. Byer’s most famous disciple is Shinji Kagawa, a midfielder at Manchester United renowned for his technical ability. Last year, a profile of Kagawa in one of the team’s match-day programs name-checked Byer and referenced his show and the comic.
While praise from Kagawa and others is nice, Byer maintains that the production of top players is only a side effect of what he’s accomplished, which was to raise the baseline level of youth soccer in Japan. According to Byer, for a child to develop into an elite player, he or she must face constant challenges. Once a player becomes so dominant over her peers that she doesn’t need to really work, her development stops. Complacency is the enemy. Byer’s program succeeded in raising the play of the worst, providing more of a challenge to the best, and that has resulted in a deep pool of top professionals.
His secret, he says, “was to empower children to practice on their own.” Practicing alone sounds quite boring, but Japanese kids do just that. Perhaps there’s a cultural explanation here—it’s almost a cliché to note that the Japanese value a strong work ethic—but there’s another explanation too: Byer’s lessons build on-the-ball confidence, which is really the skill set needed to make soccer fun. Practicing alone might not be fun, but nutmegging your unsuspecting friend the next day at school sure is.
Close followers of U.S. soccer have no doubt read the above with some creeping angst and perhaps a pang or two of jealousy. The U.S. has never developed a player of Kagawa’s skill, a fact that elicits a great deal of handwringing on this side of the Pacific. (We can argue about Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, but the point is that Japan has a team full of players capable of breaking down defenses off the dribble and the U.S. does not.) Just about everybody has an idea about how to fix that, and the U.S. Soccer Federation recently revamped its youth development setup, largely as a means to address the exact kind of complacency-breeding talent gap that Byer talks about. (He told me that in the United States, this gap was “like an ocean.”) And while the USSF’s new academy setup is a step in the right direction—it brings the nation’s most talented players into a more competitive setting—players must be eligible for the under-13 team to even participate. By that age, Japanese kids have already spent 9 years learning to pirouette like Zidane.
Byer argues that his program is exportable to the United States. In some ways, in the U.S. it’d be easier to implement than in Japan: Soccer is already the No. 1 sport among American youth. The problem, according to Byer, is that the USSF and MLS “look at grass-roots football as an obligation, not an opportunity.” Why not put a small technique spot on the Disney Channel or Nick Jr.? Kids would surely pay attention.
Some American kids are lucky, Byer points out, and get a coach who really knows soccer—“but you might get a coach who’s crap.” Parents, who typically coach the youngest American players, don’t realize kids as young as 5 are capable of learning advanced ball skills, and they don’t know how to teach them. “The whole idea [behind my program] was to be consistent and teach that technique work.”
Don’t look to Byer to launch a program in his home country, though. In August, he signed a three-year contract with the Chinese Football Association. He’s the head technical director of a program overseeing the development more than 2 million kids. If all goes to plan, there will be some Chinese Kagawas on Europe’s biggest teams in 15 years or so. But until the U.S. gets its elementary school-aged kids out there, practicing, and shows them it can be fun, we might have to wait a little longer.
*Correction, Feb. 26, 2013: Because of a production error, this article referred to the wrong date for the World Cup qualifying matches. They are in March.