Q. and A.: Tom Byer on Soccer in China

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In recent years Chinese athletes have won international competitions in sports ranging from archery to weightlifting. But their performances in soccer, one of the country’s most popular spectator sports, have long stagnated.

Beleaguered by match-fixing scandals and a dwindling pool of young players, China’s domestic soccer league has languished, and its national teams have regularly lost to neighbors like Japan and South Korea. That’s a source of deep concern to legions of soccer fans, including the country’s new president, Xi Jinping.

To help turn things around, China has hired Tom Byer, a former player from New York who completed his professional career in Japan, as head technical adviser for the Chinese School Football Program — an effort to teach the basics of the game to tens of thousands of children. Mr. Byer, 52, had already become a celebrity for doing the same in Japan, where his camps, soccer schools, a segment on a Tokyo television children’s program and a monthly feature in a leading manga have taught basic techniques to future stars like Aya Miyama, a member of Japan’s World Cup champion women’s team, and Manchester United’s midfielder Shinji Kagawa.

Now in his second year with the Chinese program, Mr. Byer has also begun a youth development effort with Beijing Guoan, the top professional team in the Chinese capital. In an interview, he explained the dynamics of the Chinese-Japanese soccer rivalry, where China has stumbled and how creating the best players requires focusing on developing the worst. Following are edited excerpts:
Q.

People in China are always talking about what the football team is doing wrong. What do you think is its fundamental problem?
A.

If people are just focusing on the top team and expecting results at the top level, it’s just not going to come. These other countries like Japan, Korea and Australia are just so much stronger. The player pool, it always comes back to that. I keep saying over and over to everybody, that gap between the very best national team players in China and the second tier is an ocean apart.

The player pool is so tiny compared with Japan, where every tournament a new star is born. When Manchester United played against Cerezo Osaka, they had an 18-year-old boy [Takumi Minamino] who scored a world-class goal against Man U [during a July 26 pre-season exhibition game]. The player pool is just abundant.
Q.

Why does the gap between the first and second-tier players matter?
A.

When players are being pushed to become even better because the guy on the bench is just about as good, that’s when you get the big change. And China just doesn’t have it. They’ve got a handful of players they’ve built the team around.

Nowadays at Barcelona or Manchester United, you never know what starting 11 are going to come out, ever. That’s why they’re at the top of their game. The players go to practice and training and they have to give 100 percent. China doesn’t have that.
Q.

What do you see when you head out to schools?
A.

I’m in my second year. I’ve seen a couple thousand kids. The kids that I deal with are elementary school fourth graders to junior high kids. You can clearly see the smaller kids, when I put them through the technical skills training, they’re much quicker to pick everything up. They’re much more agile, they’re much more enthusiastic. They’re having fun. They catch on quicker.

The junior high kids, it depends on where you go. There are some pretty good players, but not every player is like that. The technique isn’t there. I believe the reset button needs to be hit. These older players, it’s great that they’re playing and enjoying it, but if you really trying to make a big difference, you have to concentrate on the really young kids and teach them new habits.
Q.

When you work with these youngest of the players, what are you trying to teach them?
A.

What I’m trying to do is give them some tools that they can go out and practice on their own — one player, one ball. You don’t need a full-size pitch. You don’t need 10 other players. You don’t need to have a coach with you.

I’m a real big believer of empowering kids. That’s a big part of our project and philosophy here in China. It really has to do with kids enjoying themselves and having fun. The only way the kids can have fun is if they’re learning something. It’s like the kid who plays the scales on a flute or a piano. Once the kid can actually start playing songs, there’s the proudness you can accomplish something.

Every kid is not going to become a professional. But through sport and football specifically we can start building confidence in kids, building self-esteem in kids to be able to do things.
Q.

Do you think that mentality exists in China, where the sports system has long focused on elite athletes?
A.

It seems that the government in the old days put a lot of emphasis and funding on individual sports and they got results. They got more gold medals at the Beijing Olympics than the U.S. So they do well at those sports. I think they applied that thinking [to soccer] and thought if we take the top 20 or 40 players and give them specialized training, that will work. But as it turns out it doesn’t work.

In Japan, both on the private side and on the professional side, there was a program put in place for long-term grassroots development and now people are reaping the benefits.
Q.

How important is the success of Japan’s success to what China is trying to do now?
A.

If you look at the historical and cultural friction between these two countries, it’s difficult for China to say, ‘‘Hey, Japan, help us.’’ People in power wouldn’t accept that Japan was better until Japanese women won the World Cup. Then people said, ‘‘Wow, there’s something to learn.’’

On the downside, there’s always this complex of how do we compare and size up to the Japanese. Every single session coaches ask that. So there’s definitely a complex. Is Japan better than us? How much better? When can we catch up to them?
Q.

You’re the head technical adviser for the Chinese School Football Program, which was started in 2009 to introduce the game to schoolchildren. How is the program going?
A.

The C.S.F., as far as my understanding, is ahead of schedule. They’ve had to put a cap on it. They’ve already got 120 cities, 6,000 schools and 2 to 3 million kids doing it. One of the reasons is because the new president [Xi Jinping], he’s such a football guy. Provinces are tripping over themselves to put a program in place.

We’ve got to get people talking about the sport and trying to encourage their kids and bring them out. We’re still kind of in that dark era of all of the match fixing and all of the negativity and the national team not performing well and a lot of people are down on the sport.
Q.

China Super League brought in big-name players like Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka, who have both left over the past year. The league has hired David Beckham, not as a player but as a spokesman. Do you think that has any effect? Is there any net benefit?
A.

I think it does on the professional side, because people will want to come out and see stars. Media comes out. The challenge is, can they deflect that into grassroots soccer. Is that going to actually bring more kids in? Is that going to help educate more coaches? Is that going to help educate more parents? My experience says it doesn’t have that much to do with it.

People have their priorities upside down. Everybody wants to develop the next [Lionel] Messi, but they’re entrusting that to the volunteer coach who works a 9-5 job and volunteers on the weekend. I’ve never seen these guys celebrated. Trust me, there are coaches that are 10 times better than I am at developing young players, and nobody knows who they are. This is the reality of grassroots football.

Article from New York Times [http://sinosphere.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/10/23/q-a-tom-byer-on-soccer-in-china/?src=rechp&_r=0]