American Tom Byer leads Chinese soccer revolution
Tom Byer has already proved himself in Japan, where he is regarded as a superhero; now Beijing has tasked him with repeating that success on the mainland, starting with grass-roots development
Soccer purists look away now. China has hired an American to teach the very un-American game beautifully. What's more, Tom Byer has been head-hunted from arch rivals Japan.
Sounds improbable? Far from it. Byer is a former professional turned soccer coach guru known to millions of youngsters in his adopted home of Japan as "Tomsan". So successful have his grass-roots training programmes been in expanding the Japanese talent pool over the past 20 years - and ensuring Japan's national teams are regular World Cup shoo-ins - he has been hired by the Chinese government to do likewise for the mainland. Byer is tasked to drive forward the state-funded China School Football (CSF) programme, an initiative to construct youth development. He is constantly on the move, commuting across the East China Sea between his Tokyo home and Beijing, trying to teach China how to play the game - and play well.
"I have a government flow chart on my office wall showing the administrative set-up. It's impressive," says Byer. "For years, the Chinese Football Association [CFA] paid lip service to improving grass-roots training."
Video: Tom Byer: Saving China's soccer, one youth player at a time
But now top officials from the Ministry of Education and General Administration of Sport have been ordered by the Politburo to join forces. The CFA, long viewed by many as not fit for purpose, has been airbrushed out of the chart to show a streamlined power structure to service the needs of the CSF programmes operating in thousands of schools in scores of cities.
"There is no other country in the world that has a government policy like China's to develop grass-roots football and expand the talent pool," Byer enthuses. "Now the government really means it. They are as frustrated as the fans. How is it that China can fire a rocket to the moon and is the world's second biggest economy, yet it can't beat Singapore in a World Cup qualifier?" he says.
Millions of Chinese fans have heard similar rhetoric, of course. They have watched a long list of foreign souls parachute in at the behest of the football authorities to trouble-shoot a bag of snakes the size Australia.
What starts as a noble quest to modernise and civilise football quickly becomes an unwanted burden for these well-meaning missionaries. They soon take flight once the stubborn reality dissolves their morale: a rigid, ruthless state-run approach to sport, a diminished talent pool thanks in part to the one-child policy, a lack of development infrastructure, the corrosive effects of Black Whistles, bribery, gambling and corruption.
Add to these the layers of on- and-off pitch obfuscation and lassitude; little wonder lofty ideals and patience disintegrate.
Is Byer then just another gimmick - to quell the masses and soothe the egos of Zhongnanhai?
"Firstly, the government's grass-roots training programme and my job are not PR stunts," he asserts. "I would not waste my time if I thought it was all a gimmick. These guys - the CFA and the government - are serious."
Perhaps this time China has found its man. Byer is arguably more qualified than anyone to turn around Chinese football. His strategy to propel Japan into the top flight of international football is unparalleled in Asia.
The 53-year-old from up-state New York is the face behind Japan's impressive youth set-up. He recalibrated the mindset of a nation, instilling a "football ecosystem" that nurtures young players. He brought together sponsors, FAs, clubs, schools, coaches, government ministries, teachers and parents to create a unique youth environment.
Manchester United's Shinji Kagawa and women's team captain Homare Sawa are among Byer's prodigies.
He enjoys far-reaching and influential multimedia exposure, including for 13 years weekly TV slots on the nation's top children's programme and a cartoon strip in Manga comics. His company, T3, has published books and DVDs and is working on computer "3D apps".
"Tomsan" is akin to a superhero with a cult following. He holds court at mass evangelical-like training rallies with 600-800 kids hanging on his every word and copying every keepie-up. He is also a recipient of the Adidas Golden Boot Award for Coaching. Not bad for a player whose career highlights involved stints at the Tampa Bay Rowdies and non-league Leighton FC in England.
In the 1980s, Byer became the first American to play professionally in Asia, signing for J-League Hitachi FC (now Kashiwa Reysol). Now he is moonlighting for the arch enemy and his job title stacks up like a Pudong skyscraper - "Head Technical Adviser for the Chinese School Football Programme Office and Official CFA Grass-roots Ambassador".
The CSF is a 10-year initiative quietly launched in 2009 after the humiliation of the men's soccer team's dismal showing at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and yet another abysmal World Cup qualifying campaign. Such failings have seen youngsters turn their backs on football.
By the end of the 1990s there were 300,000 registered seven- to 18-year-olds playing football. That number stands at less than 8,000 today.
Initially called the "44 Cities Project" to target China's largest developed metropolises, the programme is now taught as a compulsory PE discipline at 6,200 schools in 126 cities.
Up to 2.2 million children take part in three hours of mandatory football training a week, according to Byer. "From this pool, the top 10 per cent of talent - about 250,000 - are then entered into a secondary programme from Grade 4 through to high school and university. They undergo daily two-hour coaching four days week," he says.
The CFS is also recruiting and training coaches.
Byer's main task is to format the same multimedia and mass public event initiatives that made his coaching methods popular in Japan.
He was brought to the attention of Beijing after a newspaper superimposed his head on the iconic photo of Marlon Brando in a mafiosi's dinner suit wagging a finger. It headlined the piece: "The Godfather of Japanese football". The story was widely read in China and inspired the people who mattered.
A few weeks later the managing director of Beijing Guoan FC, Gao Chao, flew to Japan to court Byer and he was appointed as the club's coaching ambassador and youth development adviser.
Given the entwinement of Chinese business relationships, the government soon came calling, asking Byer to head the CSF, too. After nearly a year of talks and a soft launch last year, Byer's presence was officially rolled out in the summer.
He staged a series of public events including a mass training session in Chaoyang Park in Beijing, where the Sunday Morning Post filmed him cajoling hundreds of kids to switch off from the hothouse pressure of school and set their souls free with a football.
TV shows, DVDs, apps and websites are in the works and Byer has over 300,000 followers on his weibo account. "We are trying to start a movement, a ripple effect, to impart my mantra: training has to start at a very young age," Byer says.
China's notoriously academic-obsessed, pushy parents, the tiger mums and eagle dads who live vicariously through their child's exam grades, are a key target.
"They have to realise that football is not a distraction from education. Studies show football, and sport in general, are good for kids from an early age and actually help them become successful academically.
"We need to get Chinese parents to understand this and get their kids messing about with footballs from as young as three, four or five.
"This will not be easy but it works in expanding the talent pool years down the line, as Japan proves," he says.
"It's about technique - just as it is in mastering the piano or being good at maths. It's about conditioning from as young as possible so when they get older, kids are much better when it comes to teaching them how to pass and shoot."
Byer says China's catch-up policy has the backing of the country's leader.
"President Xi Jinping is fully behind this. I know all national leaders say they are into football, but Xi really is. He is a known BGFC fan who has been to watch games at the Workers' Stadium. And I know from my sources he is closely involved in the CSF," says Byer.
"I am not painting a perfect picture. There are frustrations. This is a huge undertaking. But I have now built up enough trust with the people who matter so that I can make suggestions and help change things. I have told them change needs to come from the bottom up, not as before from the top."
So when will China lift the World Cup? "That's the million-dollar question. A better question is: when will we see the Chinese national youth teams compete at U-17 World Cups? Until you start qualifying for these tournaments, how can you expect your senior team to qualify for the World Cup, let alone win it?"