GUWAHATI: The Japanese football team wasn't on the world map in the 1980s. They hadn't yet qualified for a single World Cup, their players weren't fixtures in weekend Bundesliga matches. Heck, they weren't even an Asian powerhouse.
All that changed when American Tom Byer entered the country. After hanging up his cleats following a very brief playing career in the Far East, he entered into youth development. The best part of three decades later, Japan has been transformed into one of Asia's best teams -- they have won four of the last six Asian Cups and have qualified for the last six World Cups.
The former AFC technical adviser reveals how he brought about a change and started a revolution which changed the sporting face of a nation. Excerpts:-
The football scenario in Japan when you first went there in the 1980s and how it changed?
That's a long story. I have been there for 32 years. The thing that people need to understand about Japan is that the J-League started in 1993 but it was much, much different than in many other countries. There was already a strong football organisation. There was an existing (football) culture, the old Japan Football League (JFL) was a very strong organisation. Japan, in 1993, basically converted that league into a professional league (J League).
The whole idea behind the move was to make it into a hometown-based league rather than an actual company (JFL's teams had company names while the J League had replaced them with names of cities or localities). Extensive marketing was done to find out how to move away from the existing model and they decided to go to a more European model of club football.
How was the standard of football then? They were yet to qualify for a single World Cup
They made the league more professional, training improved because of the influence of coaches and physios who came in. Role models like Zico and Dragan Stojkovic... these big players came here to set the tone of what a professional league should look like and how they should operate. That helped a lot. Back in those days, the best players in Japan were just as good as the best players today. The difference is today there is many more of them. So the player pool has grown.
Now, there are a lot more influences -- you have the J League, animated shows like Captain Tsubasa, all that helps tremendously. That's a bit about the background and a lot of people don't understand it. They all think that the J-League started and there was nothing before that. That's not true. Most of the clubs had company backing -- Toyota, Honda, Hitachi, Fuji, Mazda, Fujitsu... all clubs had the backing of these companies even before that.
So did they just change the names after the J League began in 1993?
Not just that. The thing about Japan is they are a very organised society. Germany is very similar to Japan, organisation, discipline and attention to detail. I tell people that it is no coincidence that half of Japan's national team players play in Germany. Japan came up with what was called as 'The 100-year plan'. It was part of the package.
There were certain requirements that team owners had to make before they could get a membership -- stadia, facility, training, payroll system, x number of administrators et. al. This package had to be first approved by the state association, government and so on. Today, they have 54 professional clubs between the first and third division.
Your role in this development process?
After I got out of playing in 1989, I went into youth development. In Japan, football is divided into Under-12, Under-15 and Under-18. So I focused primarily on Under-12. I worked with various sponsors like Nestle, Adidas, McDonalds, Canon and Coca-Cola and devised programmes. I also introduced a specific type of technical developmental programme from Europe and that caught on in Japan. We highlighted the importance of focusing on technical skills -- we did this through many different mediums.
Can you talk a bit about what those mediums were?
In 1998, I became a host in a TV show (Oha Suta) that was mainly meant for children. So every weekday morning I used to present a football show that was named after me (Tomsan, his nickname). That programme wasn't a football programme, it was born out of the Pokemon craze. Inside that programme, there was a technical one point lesson that I presented. That went to households across Japan for 14 years. I had another platform, the country's No 1 comic book (KoroKoro Komikku) for about 13 or 14 years. Every month I had two full pages where I would demonstrate different techniques. The circulation was 1.2 mn copies per month.
We also started a series of football schools to focus on technical training and today there are a 110 of these schools across Japan. We also created content through VHS videos, DVDs and so on. Now, we have apps on phones. We work through many different channels to try to make sure that the entry level of Japanese football is very technical. I have personally done more than 2000 events for more than half a million children across the country.
I think we contributed in a significant way. Many of those players playing at the Under-17 World Cup were influenced by our programmes. They grew up watching the TV show, reading our comic book and brought our DVDs. So there is a touchpoint. We are able to say that we have influenced a generation or two of Japanese kids.
Were the mediums the main source of influencing kids to take up football?
I mean, there is never just one medium or one influencing agent. But if you are asking me on a personal level what my contribution is, we were, I believe, very influential in at least trying to engage people with the nuances of technical football. That coupled with many other things -- the national team is very popular, the J League is, overseas football is, our women have won a World Cup (2011). So there are many different influences.
The culture of the Nippon Ultras and where they figure in the scheme of things?
You got to understand that in a country like Japan, all national teams, especially if they make it to an international tournament, they receive a lot of attention. From the media, from the people and so on. We kind of joke around that if you put the Hinomaru (the red dot which represents the circle of the sun) on almost anything at a big tournament, people are going to get behind that. There is a lot of interest in nationalism when it comes to sport. This group has been big and they have been part of Japanese football.
Arsene Wenger did not spend a long time in Japan (he was a coach of Nagoya Grampus Eight) but he has gone on record to talk about the incredible football and life lessons the Japanese culture taught him. He actually reveres Japanese culture and says it's an incredible place. Can you expand on that?
I have met Arsene Wenger and have spent time talking about Japanese football with him. The reality is that every country has a certain type of culture. And often through sports, you get a glimpse into a country's culture. They are very well organised, very disciplined and very humble. They put the group first before the individual which is much different to a lot of western sports including in places like America where everybody thinks they are No 1.
These are attributes that are dear to the people. So it's easy to get everybody moving in the same direction. This is the culture that was basically created after the War. After Japan lost the War, they needed to have government, business and they needed to have them in the same bed together. So there was close co-operation. It exists till today.
Your expectations for the Under-17 team in India and any potential future stars who may play at Tokyo in three years time.
There is a link between how well a team does at the Under-17 World Cup and making that transmission into the Under-21s, Under-23s and so on. So there is a good chance that a few stars can be born out of the current Under-17 squad. I believe (Takefusa) Kubo is playing. He is kind of the wonder boy, right, of everything. He is definitely a key guy to watch.
They have got the kid, (Keito) Nakamura and Hiroto Yamada. You look at the team and you got six players from Cerezo Osaka. That's where Shinji Kagawa came from. Those guys are doing some really good youth development. I mean they have so many really good players. The one that really stands out is Kubo because he plays in the Under-20 national team. A few may become stars.