By Lyle Sylvander (Yokohama-shi, 2001-02) for JQ magazine. Lyle has completed a master’s program at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University and has been writing for the JET Alumni Association of New York since 2004. He is also the goalkeeper for FC Japan, a New York City-based soccer team.
Tom Byer (a.k.a. Tomsan) is an American soccer coach who has lived in Japan for nearly 30 years. The first professional American soccer player in Asia, he has been a major figure in Japan as a coach and educator. In fact, many people in Japan see him as a major catalyst behind the country’s rising status as a global soccer power. Byer is 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 the process, he has become a well-known media personality and has even extended his influence to China, where he signed a contract with the Chinese Football Association to be a technical director for youth teams.
Where are you from? Was soccer popular there when you were growing up?
I was born in the Bronx, New York City. I grew up in Rosendale, Ulster County, Upstate New York. Soccer was just becoming popular when I was a kid. I first started playing baseball and changed over to soccer after my brother and his friends started to play. But soccer was still a very minor sport.
How did you end up living and working in Japan?
I was introduced to Hitachi FC, which is currently playing in the J-League as Kashiwa Reysol, back in 1986 because my college coach at Ulster County Community College had some connections here. So I had a short stint with them, which gave me experience in Japanese soccer. And when I hung up the playing boots I decided to get into youth development. I also did many things on the U.S. military bases for kids playing soccer.
Can you tell us about your company T3, which aims to educate Japanese schoolchildren about soccer?
My company is called T3—the T stands for “Tom” and the 3 for “san,” Tomsan, because I am known by Tom-san throughout Japan from my appearances on daily television for 13 years. The name of the TV corner was, “Tom-san’s Soccer Techniques.” We try to help every child we come in contact with to “realize their potential.” We are technical specialists helping kids, coaches and parents understand the importance of developing technique. I have performed over 2,000 events for more than 500,000 people over the years. I established another company which I headed up for 16 years which established over 100 soccer schools throughout Japan. It’s difficult to find almost any player in Japan today who hasn’t been influenced in some way regarding our activities. This means either they’ve grown up watching my daily TV corner, read the monthly KoroKoro Komikku manga, or have played in one of our 100 schools, camps, or bought our DVDs or books.
When I was living in Japan, most fields were dirt fields. As a goalkeeper, this was especially frustrating. Now, it seems most fields have been converted to turf—how has this affected the development and playing of soccer in Japan?
There are still lots of fields which are dirt. Yes, there are more turfed fields than in the past, but for the most part kids in schools play on dirt.
What other activities are you involved with in Japan?
Aside from T3 activities, I am a full-time father/husband with two small boys, Kaito and Sho, seven and four years old. They both play soccer and I try to help them out as much as possible. I also do charity work for several different organizations which focus on helping children in many different ways. I love Japanese food and occasionally an outing of golf!
The J-League began in 1993 and MLS began in 1996, following the U.S. hosting the World Cup in 1994. Do you see any parallels with the development of soccer in Japan and the U.S. during this time period?
I attended the first match of the J-League back in 1993 and the J-League is celebrating its 20th year of existence. Other than that the two leagues started around the same time, there isn’t much else to compare between the two countries when it comes to development. Japanese kids practice much more than American kids do on average. The season is also 52 weeks a year. That alone stands out significantly when you compare the two countries. The national team of Japan is extremely popular for both men and women. Kids can be found wearing JFA replica jerseys every day in the schools with their favorite player’s name and number on the back.
Do you think the Japanese national team will ever become a world-class power?
Japan just missed out qualifying for the quarter-final of the 2010 World Cup, losing only by penalty kicks. I believe we may see Japan win a World Cup within my lifetime, and I certainly think they will be the first Asian team to do so. They are the type of team that the current world powers would not like to have in their group during a WC tournament.
Is it fair to say that Japan is the preeminent nation in the Asian Football Confederation? What are your thoughts about that?
Well, it depends on the measuring stick you use. Currently, Japan has Asian Cup champions on the men’s side; the women are World Cup champions. In this year’s FIFA-U17 World Cup, Japan is the only East Asian country participating; the others are Uzbekistan, Iran and Iraq. So there is a case to be made that Japan is indeed the top dog on the block! The men’s team had the most successful result in the 2010 World Cup as well, just missing out on a quarter-final appearance, losing in penalty kicks. And both men’s and women’s teams had a fantastic London Olympics with the women winning the silver and the men just missing winning a medal.
Would you say that Japan has been a role model for soccer in Asia? It seems that most of the professional and semi-professional leagues are modeled after the J-League.
Japan is surely the leader because of the success professional J-League and the success at international play. The J-League is extremely popular but the Japanese have been very slow in exporting their brand of football to other countries.
Certain countries are associated with specific styles of play—for example, England (“long ball”) and Italy (“defensive”). In your opinion, is there a Japanese style?
Yes, Japan most definitely has a distinct style of play which is very technical, speedy, and counter attacking. The bigger, slower teams have much trouble playing against Japan. Also, [Japan] is very cohesive and puts the team first before any individual players. No one player is bigger than the team.
Do you feel that the government involved is actively supporting the sport?
The JFA is the controlling organization for the sport inside Japan. They have a very good commercial department, which raises lots of money from sponsorship. This is probably the big difference between Japan and other countries. The JFA’s annual operating budget is $186 million. That is massive and to put into perspective, the DFB, or German FA, has an operating budget of $113 million. The national team is extremely popular, so when they play everyone gets behind them and the sport.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was a bit of a soccer boom in the U.S., most prominently exemplified by the New York Cosmos in the old North American Soccer League. Why do you think this momentum fizzled?
I grew up watching the New York Cosmos when Pelé came to the U.S. The Cosmos had great success and I believe the problem was that every team back then thought that if they had an international star on their team, they could enjoy the same success. But what they didn’t know was that outside of Pelé, there weren’t many others that could attract the crowds like the Cosmos, and they quickly went into debt.
What do you think of Major League Soccer in the U.S.? Why are their operations more successful than the NASL’s? Are they more successful in marketing soccer as a professional sport than the NASL was?
The MLS is quite successful and the level of play is very good. Unfortunately, many people try to compare the U.S. level of play with the English Premier League, Spanish League, German League and Italian League. These are the top leagues in the world. But when you compare it to many countries around the world, the MLS is better than many of the other countries. There is a salary cap for teams, which tries to keep the balance in check regarding spending. It also levels the playing field in order to create parity amongst all of the teams in the League. MLS does a very good job of marketing the game better than the past NASL did. The U.S. national team has been qualifying for the FIFA World Cups every cycle since qualifying in 1990. Lastly, the soccer-specific stadiums have been a game changer for the MLS—much smaller, with the seats closer to the playing pitch.
Do you think the U.S. national team will ever become a world-class power?
The U.S. needs to focus more on developing more skillful players from a very young age. Becoming a world-class power takes many years of investment into youth development. I believe the U.S. will eventually get there, but it will take some time. Remember, there are over 180 countries that play soccer, compared to the number of countries playing the American traditional sports such as baseball, basketball, football and ice hockey. The competition is fierce.
Since China represents such a large market, FIFA wants to actively promote soccer there. What is the current status of the sport there? Do you think they can build a world-class professional league? Can you tell us about your work there?
China has a professional league: CSL, or Chinese Super League. There is much interest in this league and there has been lots of investment recently. The Chinese national team is coached by a world-renowned coach, Camacho, who is Spanish and will need time to instill his philosophy of play. The Chinese School Football Program, CSF, was established by the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Sport in 2009 with a 10-year plan in place. This program is designed to both popularize the sport and implement soccer into the schools. There are currently 120 cities participating with over 6,000 schools and more than two million kids active. I have recently been appointed as the head technical consultant/official grassroots ambassador to the program. I provide technical content and Instruction for the program through visits throughout China. This is a very good program and we have very high hopes for success in both popularizing the game and developing the next generation of players.
Can you tell me about your work in India and Indonesia? I was recently in India and all I saw were cricket fields! Do you think soccer can become more popular in India? As a former British colony, why didn’t soccer take off there like cricket did?
Both countries are crazy for soccer. I have worked many times in Indonesia and we are developing a few academies starting first in Jakarta. I have a big media presence there every time I visit which helps me to reach lots of people and promote the importance of youth development. We are doing similar projects in India and Nepal as well. In Nepal, my most popular DVD has been duplicated and being given away free by Adidas Nepal. India as well is a massive country geographically like China and we are partnering with a group there to provide support for opening up schools and delivering content through the many different delivery channels available.
It seems that soccer is also slowly gaining popularity in Southeast Asia—Thailand and Vietnam, for instance. Why did it take soccer so long to reach this part of the world?
The game is extremely popular because of the arrival of satellite television where people can watch the best teams in the world real-time and be exposed to the very best. What is taking time is the development of the game at the grassroots level. There are professional leagues in all of these countries, but the lack of development at the grassroots level has not caught up yet.
Finally, do you have any other messages for your fans and soccer supporters around the world?
I am very fortunate to have been in the right place at the right time, way before the soccer boom started in Japan. I received the Golden Boot award from Adidas International after the 1998 FIFA World Cup draw in Marseille, France in recognition of my contributions to grassroots soccer. This gave me a much bigger voice to promote the importance of youth development. I have been fortunate to have players like Shinji Kagawa, current Japan national team star and playing at Manchester United, pass through my events as a small boy. I have also had Aya Miyama, current captain of the Japan women’s national team, come to our camps and events, and we recently filmed a DVD together which will come out later this summer.
But I’m just as proud of the many kids who I have interacted with who have never become professionals. There is no shortcut in developing a strong soccer nation. It must all start with a grassroots Initiative. Kids nine and ten years old are deemed to be too old to start the sport these days and we are emphasizing that kids can start learning to manipulate the ball from a very young age, two, three, four and up. My philosophy is simple: In order to improve the very best players, you must improve the worst players who push the best to become better. And once you’ve closed that gap between the very worst and the very best, you will see a paradigm shift in a country’s overall level!
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