Perhaps if it were not for a criminal gang in USA, and a 12-year old boy who lay trembling on the floor when his house was riddled with bullets, Japan’s football wouldn’t have come this far. That boy was Tom Byer, the American who would go on to revolutionise Japanese grassroots with his football clinics, football schools, and a television show that ran every weekday for 14 years from 1998. He started his clinics in ’88, and went on to inspire a nation, including many current and past national players.
But the story starts that dreadful day in upstate New York at a place called Rosendale. Tom’s father was the chief of police, and the gang members came for retribution. “My father is outside the home, firing at them, they are shooting at him, at our house, and I am lying on the floor crying.” At one point, his brother had to run out to give his dad more bullets, and his sister sneaked up to the window to see who were shooting at them. She would go on to become the Pulitzer-winning photographer, Renee Byer.
Long story short, the family is moved by the authorities to a hideout-hotel in New York for a month after the incident, and eventually moved to Florida for a year. The place where Americans go to retire was where Tom fell in love with football, courtesy a passionate German coach at school.
The violent episode in childhood, and its aftermath, lay buried in Tom’s psyche, and when he came as a youth to Japan to play football for a club, he was hooked by Tokyo. “Looking back at my life now, I think it was because of those incidents. I felt Japan to be a really really safe and secure place, and there were no uneasy vibes in my bones.”
He lives in Japan now, and it’s 1 in the night in Tokyo when he texts to say he is ready to have a chat. The conversation spans for two hours as he expounds passionately on his work and football philosophy.
He decided to stay in Japan after his football. “I was a decent footballer I would say, coaching was my real interest, and I started a football clinic. Nameless, small, but it drew a few kids. Not much money, though. One day, when the harsh reality hit him, he heard that the company Nestle was going to invest in football in the country. He recalled that there was a boy at his clinic who had said his father was in that company. Desperate, he got the number from a local coach, and dialled. “Luckily, the kid picked up, and I ask him, ‘hey what’s your dad at Nestle?” The reply would turn around his life: “He is the president”. The president came on line, and it resulted in Tom getting a deal to run 50 Milo clinics in ’88. “It was like boom! My life was changing.”
Even back in America, he would coach in various kids’ camp, and instinctively realised that this was his future. Slowly over the next few years, his clinics started to spread across Japan. “There are 46 states, and because of these clinics, I think I know more about Japan than any Japanese.”
His forte was technical coaching, teaching kids the various little techniques. “Football is an incredibly technique-heavy game. People don’t understand it. It can take years to master.”
In 1993, he met with Dutch coach, Wiel Corver, who talked about his Corver method. It’ about close-ball control, situational moves to manipulate the ball. Once the kids master ball control, comes tactics and passing. Tom began to firm up his method. Still, the money wasn’t really pouring in. He remembers days where he would shake out his cupboards to look for money. “A coin or two, anything but there was nothing. For many years, in fact, I had not even travelled to see my parents.”
But the tide was changing. The number of clinics increased, and he even started a soccer school which started to slowly mushroom, and he was beginning to learn the language as well. The kids, and people, started calling him Tom-san — he was now almost a local. Then television came calling. A Tokyo network Ohasuta gave him a show — Tom-san soccer techniques corner’
“Every morning 6.47, I would start the show with these lines: ‘Oha! Tom Byer Desu! (Good morning this is Tom Byer). For 14 years, every day. It was three-minutes of technique. One thing a day – step-up, scissor kick, manipulation with sole of foot, and on and on. Five techniques a month, with repetition every week day. “The magic lay in repetition, and kids picked up.” Tom-san became a household name. Even now, when he is at a restaurant or wherever, people would stop, stare, and ask him, “Byer?” and would smile and tell tales of how they all watched the show. An estimated three to five million Japanese kids watched him every day.
Shinji Kagawa, former Manchester United midfielder, is his most famous student, and has talked about Tom’s influence on him. Ditto the likes of Keisuke Honda and Tadanari Lee. Aya Miyama, former Japan women’s captain, was a kid who came under his influence, and they would later make a popular football DVD together. Several other national players started to fall in love with the game because of his show and clinics. Byer believes that more than top players, his contribution lies in improving football culture among kids in the country. So much that a minister of education, sport and culture Mayumi Moriyama said: “Tom changed the way children were coached forever (and) he has personally contributed to the current success Japan enjoys. He has conducted 2000 events for 500,000 kids across Japan. Tom has certainly changed the game for Japan!”.
He even went to China, had a television show and did his bit there as well. He has even been to India, and though the football plan didn’t develop as intended with a corporate house, he went back with memories of a IPL game, and an autographed ball from Sachin Tendulkar.
Busting the age myth
In the last two years, his philosophy has changed. He now believes the most important phase of child is from age 2 to 6. “The organised coaching believes skill-acquisition starts from 8 or 9 – it’s too late. That’s why so many million kids play but only a few stay with the game.”
It all comes down to cultures in the country, he believes. “Out of 211 countries under FIFA, only 8 have won. Only 3 are repeat winners – Brazil, Germany and Italy. I realised there is no specialised coaching in those countries. The cultures there are conducive to producing players – they start from a very young age. I read up about great players like Pele to Neymar and found that most of the players attribute technical abilities to fathers, and sometimes to their mothers. I realised culture is most important. Give a ball to Spanish or a Brazilian kid, and try to take the ball back , you know what they would do? They would try to take it back. If you challenge a American kid, three things happen: They would either bend to pick the ball or kick it, or just freeze.”
The learning was passed onto his sons. He married a Japanese in 2000, and had kids in his 40s. “I would discourage my first boy who had just started to walk from kicking and encourage him to manipulate. Transfer it from one foot to other, turn, manipulate, and basically protect the ball. I started documenting the development of my sons. Fast forward to 11 years later, (8 and 11 now) and I started connecting dots backwards. Grassroots is most misunderstood part of the game.”
The videos of his boy at age of 3 and around 10 are startling. Even as a toddler, the kid can be seen twisting, turning, and manipulating the ball almost nonchalantly. A game video from age of 10, shows how far ahead he is from the rest of the boys of his age.
Tom knew he had cracked the football puzzle. He started to make a presentation, and in the last two years, has started to travel around the world. Club teams began to call. “Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur, Napoli, Roma, Ajax, English FA, German Bundesliga have invited me to make presentations, and contracts to set pilot programs in kindergartens have started. Parents are most important – the coaches don’t like me saying it but that’s the truth. Football starts at home.”
Back at his American home, his father finally had an opportunity to see how his son had become. In 1997, he was flown to Marseilles in
France for the world cup draw by Adidas. At a post-event party, they gave him a Golden Boot award. Then his junior college in New York included him Hall of Fame. When he was driving back home, sitting beside him was his father who had got emotional. “Tears began to flow. I could see that he was so proud of me, and told me he was so proud.”
He has done shows and events with Pogba, David Beckham, thrashed for hours with Franz Backenbaur about his plans, met with likes of George Best and Pele. It’s been an incredible life. A shootout in an American town would leave emotional residues in a kid who would later feel at home in Japan and settle down there to start a football revolution. Sometimes, life mirrors fairytales.