Meet the New York Dad Leading China's Soccer Revolution

Tom Byer, once the Mr. Rogers of Japanese soccer, is now bringing his magic to China, thanks to the country's soccer-mad president.

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Feb 26 2015, 2:25pm

In China, President Xi Jinping gets what he wants, and what he wants is for his country's men's national team to stop sucking at soccer. (The women are already pretty good.) As the Economist recently wrote, "Men's football in China is a national shame," which means for Xi, who is a massive soccer fan, it's his personal shame. And he's set forth a strategy to turn the world's largest population and (arguably) its largest economy into a soccer superpower.

A story in last Saturday's Washington Post laid out the scope of Xi's plan, which is about as enormous as you'd expect: "In just the past few months, a high-level government working group has been set up to tackle the problem. Officials have declared soccer a compulsory part of the national curriculum. About 20,000 soccer-themed schools are to open by 2017, with the goal of producing more than 100,000 players."

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Quite an undertaking! To help facilitate this national transformation, the Chinese government brought in a foreign consultant. The advisor isn't Spanish or German or a citizen of any other soccer power, he's from upstate New York, and today he's Asia's biggest proselytizer of the beautiful game: Tom Byer.

In the late 80s, Byer's playing career brought him to Japan, where he stayed after retirement and started a business as a youth coach, putting on clinics based around the training methods developed in the 1970s by Weil Coerver, a Dutch youth development guru. Both Arjen Robben and Cristiano Ronaldo are said to have studied the Coerver method as kids. The method focuses on ball control and how to address various problems kids might encounter on the field. Thanks to some strategic partnerships, Byer eventually took his clinics nationwide. At the same time, he began publishing his own lessons and problems in popular comic books. His profile increased further when, in the late 1990s, he began giving brief lessons on television during breaks in morning cartoons. Over time, he became a kind of beloved children's celebrity, known nationally as Tomsan. He's credited with not just teaching generations of Japanese kids good technique, but for helping to change the country's sports culture. Baseball used to be the emperor of Japanese sports. Thanks to Byer, soccer now sits on the throne.

Other countries in the eastern hemisphere took notice, and today Byer runs programs in Australia, Indonesia, Japan, and China. His involvement in Chinese soccer began four years ago, when "the president of the professional club called Beijing Guoan basically got on a plane and flew over to Japan to meet me," Byer says by phone. Guoan's president had just read an article about Byer in China's Titan Sports, the country's largest sports newspaper. The article called Byer the Godfather of Japanese soccer. While in Japan, the president observed one of Byer's clinics, which Byer remembers as having about 800 participating kids. Afterwards, he told Byer that nobody really did this sort of thing in China. A year later, the president set up a three-month program of clinics in China, which led to contacts with the Chinese Football Association.

The idea of making soccer-specific schools in China isn't new. As Byer explains it, there've been about 5,000 schools in 126 cities in the so called "Chinese School Football program" since 2009. After his work in Beijing, the Chinese Football Association appointed Byer as the CSF system's grassroots ambassador. Byer says they were "basically pilot schools that use football as a curriculum in their physical education classes once or twice a week," in addition to a few hours of after-school participation for select athletes.

In other schools, however, general physical education had for a long time taken a backseat to the pursuit of high test scores in math and science. In part, according to Byer, this was because the physical education curriculum was run by the Ministry of Sport, which didn't always play nice with the Ministry of Education. But the country's single child program also contributed to the widely-held perception of sports as a distraction. When parents can only have one kid, they tend to want him or her to invest time on something more definite than the speculative pursuit of professional athletics.

With a swipe of Xi's pen, this has all changed. The Ministry of Education is now in charge of physical education in its schools and soccer is no longer a distraction, it's an obligation. "You're talking about, now, football has the status of mathematics and science," Byer says. "The old CSF program of 5,000 schools—basically the Ministry of Education will take over [and expand the program]." He expects the amount of time children spend playing in schools to be "beefed up" as it expands.

Byer says he hasn't signed the paperwork yet, but he's agreed to terms with the Ministry of Education and has already participated in several board meetings. As a member of the advisory board, he will oversee the curriculum and train the instructors. He's planning to spend a couple months this summer in 13 cities training the 5,000-strong first generation of school coaches. As the program moves forward, he reckons he'll spend "at least 120 days a year" on the road in China. (Byer lives with his family in Tokyo.)

"So it'll be a very busy summer for me," he says.

His role will also be media-heavy. "In modern-day football you have to do more than just hire coaches," he says. "You have to create a football culture."

How do you change a sporting culture? You start young. According to Byer, China has about 100-million children under the age of six. "It's not just a matter of the coaching and the content, but what we can do with television," he says "So we're talking with CETV, which is the Chinese Education television channel. We're talking about possibly doing some animation around football. We're talking about events. We're talking about content on the web. We're talking about many different things to basically introduce [soccer] to China."

In other words, China doesn't just want Byer to give its millions of kids a good technical foundation in the game, it wants him to teach the kids to love the sport too—something he's done elsewhere: They want him to become China's Tomsan.

But China's old rival, Japan, won't give him up easily. In 2010, after a 13 year run, his television spot with Japan's morning cartoons went off the air. "[But] I'm doing it again," he says. "It starts up in April. I'm doing it with [Aya Miyama], the captain of the Japan women's national team, who was a girl that I coached."