The American Who Saved Soccer … In Japan

The stadium scene.
Feb. 26 2013 12:00 AM

The Saga of Tomsan

How an American journeyman revolutionized Japanese soccer—and why it isn’t happening in the U.S.

A page from a 1999 KoroKoro comic.
A page from a 1999 KoroKoro comic.

Courtesy of Tom Byer

In 2009, Zinedine Zidane, the legendary soccer player, participated in a coaching clinic in Ajinomoto Stadium in Tokyo, Japan. Children and parents filled the stands. The mood was jovial. Zidane was a once-in-a-generation sort of player, a kind of mad genius remembered today as much for his ball skills as for the infamous 2006 World Cup headbutt. The parents in attendance hoped some of those skills, like his signature pirouette (not the headbutt), would rub off on their children. But as Zidane and the gathered coaches began their lessons, something strange happened. The children in the audience began to chant. They weren’t chanting “Zidane,” although people occasionally shouted for his autograph. The children chanted “Tomsan,” the nickname of a 52-year-old retired player from upstate New York who never won a Champions League title, a World Cup Golden Ball, or a FIFA World Player of the Year award: Tom Byer.

Byer played briefly in Japan in the late 1980s, before retiring to work as a youth coach. Today, many in Japan see him as a major catalyst behind the country’s rising status as a global soccer power, responsible for increasing soccer’s popularity and teaching fundamental skills to hundreds of thousands of children, including many of the nation’s most celebrated players. In 1988, the year Byer hung up his cleats, the Japanese men’s and women’s national teams weren’t even successful regionally. In 2011, the Japanese men took home the Asian Cup for a record fourth time, and the Japanese women’s national team won its first World Cup title.

Although what Byer achieved is notable, how he did it is the fascinating part. He started off running a no-name, grass-roots soccer clinic and within a decade, he’d become a fixture in Japan’s most popular children’s comic book and a character in the country’s leading morning kids’ show. Tom Byer is the Mr. Rogers of Japanese soccer. There’s nothing in America like him, and as both the Japanese and American men’s squads prepare for World Cup qualifying matches next month*, it’s worth thinking about what the U.S. program could learn from Byer’s Japanese success.

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Byer’s playing career started in 1983, the worst possible time for an aspiring American pro. The North American Soccer League was on the verge of collapse and MLS was more than a decade away.  Things weren’t much better in Europe, where the sport, scandalized by hooligans, had begun a kind of low ebb, punctuated by a series of stadium disasters. But Byer’s short, nomadic career brought him to Japan, a country he fell in love with.

“Back in those days, if you were a good juggler of the soccer ball, you could entertain,” he said. So after retiring, he started a traveling youth soccer clinic based as much around his ability to “catch people’s eyes” with juggling tricks as his coaching chops. He didn’t speak much Japanese, and in order to set up gigs, he cold-called English-speaking institutions around Tokyo, like U.S. military bases and international schools.

In 1989, during a clinic at a Canadian school, Byer learned that one of his students, a young boy, was the son of a Nestlé employee. Byer needed outside funding to expand his business, and about a week after the clinic, out of ideas, he decided to take a chance and call the boy’s father. He scoured the phone book, and dialed what he guessed was the right number. To his relief, the boy answered. Byer asked to speak to the boy’s father but first asked what his dad did at Nestlé. The boy said, “He’s the president.” A week later, Byer signed an agreement with Nestlé to sponsor 50 clinics in a yearlong, nationwide tour. During each clinic, Byer had to give out samples of Milo, an Ovaltine-like chocolate drink, but it was a small price to pay for his first big break. 

Although he now had financial backers (Nestlé sponsored him for the next 11 years), Byer did not consolidate his coaching philosophy until 1993, when he opened his first soccer school, which has since expanded to 100 campuses with roughly 20,000 pupils nationwide.  That year, Paul Mariner, the former head coach of Toronto FC, introduced Byer to a technique-based approach to youth development called the “Coerver Method.” It changed the way Byer viewed coaching.

Created by Wiel Coerver, a Dutch coach, the method is a quasi-academic system based on specific skill acquisition. Rather than putting kids on a field and having them chase the ball around—which is how most young kids practice across the United States—it teaches close ball control and situational, one-on-one moves: stopovers, feints, various ways to manipulate the ball with the sole of the foot. Tactics and passing come later, once the kids master ball control.

In 1998, Japanese broadcasters seized upon the upcoming World Cup as the perfect moment to begin promoting the 2002 tournament, which would be held in Japan for the first time ever. Executives at Tokyo TV and ShoPro, a production company, added a two-minute soccer spot to Oha Suta, the top-rated children’s morning show, and they asked Byer to host. Suddenly, instead of standing in front of a few hundred young soccer players a couple times a week, Byer was teaching his skills in a green screen studio, backed by animated stadiums and fans. From 3  million to 5 million children saw him every single day.

At the same time, executives from the affiliated Shogakukan publishing company offered him a two-page panel in KoroKoro Komikku, Japan’s biggest children’s comic book. The United States has no equal to the cultural giant that is KoroKoro. The monthly comic book has an enormous circulation—Byer puts it at about 1.2 million (for comparison, in 1977, during its heyday, Mad magazine circulated 2,132,655 copies in the entire year, in a country that’s more than double the population of Japan) and a readership in the neighborhood of 3 million Japanese preteens. The magazine is hundreds of pages long and shares storylines with Japanese video games. It played a big role in transforming Kirby and Pokémon in to global media juggernauts.

“The comic book was to promote soccer, to inform people about the technical side, it was to highlight the stars and try to inspire and motivate kids,” Byer said.

It worked.

The print and TV programs were a kind of tag team that helped ignite excitement for soccer in Japanese culture. (According to a recent survey by NHK, a Japanese toymaker, soccer is now more popular among Japanese boys than baseball). Oha Suta aired every day, right before school, perfect for motivating playground training sessions. KoroKoro, meanwhile, put soccer practice on the same level as the country’s most esteemed cartoons and superheroes.

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