Tom Byer gives coaching clinics to Chinese kids at Beijing Guoan in 2013. Photo: SCMP Pictures
As the Chinese Super League transfer window closed on Friday, many wondered, again, how funnelling kajillions to assorted foreign mercenaries will improve Chinese football in the long term.
The closest thing to a coherent strategy, it appears, is the China Schools Football project, launched in 2009 with the aim of making every kid familiar with the game. One of its key figures is Tom Byer, an American ex-pro credited as transforming youth development in Japan; “Tom San” is a celebrity there because of football training TV shows and mangas in which he appeared.
In Hong Kong briefly this week, Byer told me about his efforts to change China’s attitudes to football in general and grassroots development in particular.
‘Tom San’ in action in Beijing. Photo: Simon Song
“I have a very different approach to football development – whereas the traditional thought is ‘We need more coaches, it’s all about the elites,’ nothing could be further from the truth: it’s really about trying to develop more of a football culture,” says Byer, whose official title is Head Technical Advisor for the Chinese School Football Programme Office and Official CSF Grassroots Ambassador. He also works with CSL team Beijing Guo’an and is an “ambassador” for Volkswagen China and Adidas China’s efforts to promote youth football.
“If you look at the 209 countries in Fifa only eight have won a World Cup,” adds the New Yorker, who moved to Japan in 1985 to play for Hitachi FC. “Try to figure out what’s happening in those countries and why are they developing players at a ridiculous rate and most countries don’t, to me it zeroes down to not so much the coaching is better, but the culture is conducive to developing players.”
Byer shows me a Powerpoint deck he says he has presented to many of the world’s top FAs and clubs. His philosophy boils down to this: as soon as a kid can walk give them a small ball and encourage them never to let it leave their feet. Video evidence of Byer’s own two boys’ skill – he has been practising what he preaches since the first was born about 10 years – seems to support his theory.
“Most people think it’s a kicking game. You can go out any given weekend to a park and it will be filled usually with fathers with their young kids and all they do is kick it back and forth,” he says.
“You have two-, three-, four-year-olds, what do you imagine they can do with ball, and the answer is most people in the world don’t know. I’ve sat with technical directors, managers who have managed World Cup teams, some of the biggest and brightest in the world entrusted with football development and you find out most of them don’t understand development when it comes to very young kids.”
Byer is now attempting to educate China’s PE teachers and – most importantly he says – encouraging its parents to get their little emperors and empresses dribbling around the living room as soon as possible. The Ministry of Education is now solely in charge of the CSF programme, with the Sports Ministry and Chinese Football Association little involved, and Byer says that’s a good thing.
“The educators have viewed up until now sport and football in particular as a distraction – they’ve done their best to keep it out of schools,” he says. “Back in 2009 when they started the CSF programme ... it didn’t seem to be functioning correctly because ... there was kind of two hands on the steering wheel.
“I think it’s better [now] because the Ministry of Education has complete control of what’s happening with schools. They dictate, the whole idea is to put a curriculum in place in schools so that kids can be exposed to football.”
Byer has been conducting mass meetings with parents of toddlers to spread his gospel and plans are in place for several TV shows, he says. “I’ve already shot three pilot programmes – we created a three-minute technical corner that will be broadcast 365 days a year on China Education TV which is basically controlled or overseen by the Ministry of Education.
“We also plan to start in April filming, all funded by CETV, to send me on a tour of all 32 provinces to promote the TV show and to film in every city. That’s a huge commitment on the government side, my side and that’s a game-changer, you can’t possibly bring enough coaches to China – and the other thing too is that it’s not a coaching problem: you can hire and fire the best coaches, you can’t hire and fire parents.” (Well, let’s not give President Xi Jinping’s government any ideas on that last point).
Byer talks a great game – his enthusiasm and passion are obvious, and it’s hard to get a word in when he’s preaching. Will the message get through? Chinese football fans will have to wait a generation to find out.