In 2009, Zinedine Zidane, the legendary soccer player, participated in a coaching clinic in Ajinomoto Stadium in Tokyo, Japan. Children and parents filled the stands. The mood was jovial. Zidane was a once-in-a-generation sort of player, a kind of mad genius remembered today as much for his ball skills as for the infamous 2006 World Cup headbutt. The parents in attendance hoped some of those skills, like his signature pirouette (not the headbutt), would rub off on their children. But as Zidane and the gathered coaches began their lessons, something strange happened. The children in the audience began to chant. They weren’t chanting “Zidane,” although people occasionally shouted for his autograph. The children chanted “Tomsan,” the nickname of a 52-year-old retired player from upstate New York who never won a Champions League title, a World Cup Golden Ball, or a FIFA World Player of the Year award: Tom Byer.
Byer played briefly in Japan in the late 1980s, before retiring to work as a youth coach. Today, many in Japan see him as a major catalyst behind the country’s rising status as a global soccer power, 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 1988, the year Byer hung up his cleats, the Japanese men’s and women’s national teams weren’t even successful regionally. In 2011, the Japanese men took home the Asian Cup for a record fourth time, and the Japanese women’s national team won its first World Cup title.
Although what Byer achieved is notable, how he did it is the fascinating part.