Tom-san, the big man in kids’ soccer

Now away from the mean streets, American coach gets his kicks guiding younger generation


So who is the most famous soccer coach in Japan? Well, it could be Japan team coach Takeshi Okada or maybe Gamba Osaka’s Akira Nishino. On the other hand, it may be someone many adults have never heard of: Tom-san.

“It’s sometimes embarrassing,” says Tom Byer. “When I did an event with France’s Zinedine Zidane, all the kids were shouting out ‘Tom-san, Tom-san.’ “

You see, Tom-san is rather well known. He probably wasn’t the world’s greatest soccer player, and he might not even be the world’s greatest coach, but in Japan he’s the big cheese.

How big? Well, more than a decade ago, Adidas presented him with a special Golden Boot award for his extensive coaching work in Japan and other parts of Asia. He has his own “manga” (comic), is No. 1 on the Amazon DVD charts and can be seen on TV Tokyo every morning during the week.

So how did the son of a New York City detective end up with such a high profile as a soccer coach in Japan?

“Indirectly, I was introduced to Japan by (former Japan manager) Hans Ooft,” Byer explains. “My coach at Ulster College in New York state was a buddy of his and one of Ooft’s assistants introduced me to Hitachi.”

Byer spent a year playing for Hitachi — then a Japan Soccer League team, now known as Kashiwa Reysol — but he couldn’t get into the first team and started to wonder what he was doing playing second division Japanese soccer in front of no fans for no money. So he got out of the playing game and went into coaching.

“I wanted to stay in Japan, so I got into youth development,” he says. “In the early days, I did a lot of work with U.S. military bases, but essentially I would farm myself out to anyone who would listen to me.”

After a clinic at Kobe Canadian Academy, Byer met a kid whose father worked for Nestle, the maker of Milo, a milk drink containing chocolate and malt.

“I saw Milo was having an international boys’ tournament and as I’d just met a kid whose dad worked for Nestle, I tried to get in touch with him,” Byer recalls. “The kid picked up the phone and I asked him what his dad did with Nestle. He said he was the president.” Milo was a big sponsor of children’s soccer and Byer was looking for a sponsor for his kids’ clinics. He made his pitch and came away with funds to put on 50 events in 1989.

“I really had no idea how I was going to pull that off,” Byer admits.

But like all successful people, Byer is a driven man. It was, he says, his “defining moment in Japan” and started a long relationship with Nestle. It also allowed him to expand his business.

“I realized I needed to be surrounded by people that could do the stuff I couldn’t do,” he says. “So I got together a bunch of ex-players and we went around the country for the next 10 years.”

Byer also discovered the Coerver program — via his friend, former England international Paul Mariner — and found an investor to develop the program in Japan. It quickly became the biggest soccer school in Japan, helped by being launched the same year as the J. League — in 1993 — and by its association with Adidas, which had a strong influence on the game in Japan. Byer spearheaded the program beyond Japan into other parts of Asia and earned the Golden Boot award for his efforts.

Byer’s good fortune continued when he was asked if he would be interested in appearing on the early morning TV show “Ohasuta.”

“I was approached because they wanted to do a football corner, so they asked me if I would be interested,” Byer remembers. “I got the part and I’ve been on the show every day for the past 11 years.”

To add to his rapidly growing media profile, he started to be featured in the No. 1 manga for kids (with sales of 1.2 million copies) and the Tom-san brand was featured in his many events around Japan. This proved useful when his relationship with Coerver in Japan fell apart at the end of 2007 over how the company should operate. Byer, who was a director of the company, was extremely unhappy with the way things were going and decided to get out — fast.

“I gave up a lot of money when I left Coerver,” Byer states. “Things suddenly went sour. I wasn’t involved in the management of the company I had started. I’d even recruited the CEO and president. In the end, I figured I could do a better job with peace of mind doing my own thing.”

Byer took his talent, his TV fame, his manga fame and his contacts and decided to go it alone with his own company, T3 ( Importantly, he maintained his close relationship with Adidas and now does all their under-12 events around the country with an average of 300-500 kids attending each event (and anything up to 2,000).

At 49 (he looks about 29), he’s come a long way from his homes — first in the Bronx, then upstate New York. Japan is a haven for Byer. “My dad was involved in three shootouts, which is very rare, even for a New York City policeman,” he says. “When I was 11, there was an assassination attempt on my dad at our house in upstate New York. We were in the house while there was a gunbattle going on in the street. It was a wild upbringing.”

As a result of the assassination attempt, the Byer family decamped to Florida for a year and it was there — through German coach Norbert Mueller — that young Tom fell in love with soccer.

“Football became my passion,” Byer recalls. “I used to go and watch the New York Cosmos when Pele played for them and went to his farewell game. Soccer was big then. It was a myth that people didn’t play soccer in the United States. Now, more kids play soccer in the United States than any other country in the world.”

The North American Soccer League folded, mainly, Byer notes, because it was built from the top down and there was no one organizing things at the grassroots level. But the game was still strong at the college level and Byer made a name for himself, first with Ulster County Community College and then, after a year spent in England, at the University of South Florida. He was signed to the Tampa Bay Rowdies franchise, but the NASL was in decline and the league folded soon after.

With so many professional soccer players out of work, moving to Japan was one of the few options open to Byer. But it was a move that has paid huge dividends, if only because his wife and two kids can live in relative safety.

“I used to have nightmares about people trying to kill us,” Byer says of his days as a kid in New York. “I think one of the reasons I love Japan so much is because it’s so safe.”

It probably also helps that they’re not very good at soccer.

“Although the level of play has gone up in Japan, the way the clubs are run lags behind,” Byer says. “Technically, Japan is one of the top countries in the world; they are very good in terms of skill and there are good junior players all over Japan. But being skillful is not everything and you can’t help but feel there is some key piece of the puzzle missing — they don’t have that competitive spirit.”

Byer lays the blame firmly on coaching in Japan. He says they are great at teaching the technical aspects of the game, “but they are lousy communicators.”

“In order to be a good coach, you have to have a personality,” Byer explains. “But the Japanese system does not produce communicators, mentors, motivators, and that is where the J. League has hit a ceiling.”

Byer has respect for the achievements of former Japan bosses Hans Ooft and Philippe Troussier, and current Japan coach Okada, but he is critical of coaching further down the line, of an uninspired media and of the excessive power of advertising companies in Japan.

“Money is only put at the top end of the game, and that’s true all over the world,” Byer states. “But there’s no shortcut to becoming a strong football nation. It must start at the youth level. Very little money goes to the grassroots level here. In the end, it all comes down to good coaching.”