RISING SAN

Japan, the runner-up from four years ago, has deep ties to the U.S.—but it's not all about avenging defeat in the last World Cup
June 03, 2019

FEW COUNTRIES have seen a bigger transformation in their Women's World Cup fortunes over the past few decades than Japan, which got obliterated at the first tournament, in 1991 but went on to win the whole thing in 2011. One of the central figures in that rise to soccer power (both on the women's and the men's sides) is a New York native who has lived across the Pacific since 1986.

After finishing his playing career with the Japanese club Hitachi, Tom Byer stuck around and became a technical-skills coach, leading grassroots clinics across the country for kids from four to 12. Noticing that his new homeland tended not to produce players of overwhelming size, he landed upon a sort of mantra: "If you want to be a good soccer player in Japan," he says, "you start with a technical foundation." Byer scaled up, opening his own soccer schools—today there are around 150—and in 1998 began hosting a skills segment on Japan's most popular children's TV program, Oha Suta. Tom-san, as he's known, appeared on the show for 14 years and had a major influence on a host of Japanese national team stars, from former women's captain Aya Miyama (who started cohosting the TV segment with Byer a few years after winning the 2011 World Cup) to current men's captain Shinji Kagawa. "He's a maestro at developing kids," says Yoshika Matsubara, who was on Japan's 1996 Olympic team. "It's almost like he's more of a father figure than a coach."

Today, Japanese players are known as some of the most fundamentally sound in the world, and it's not a stretch to suggest Byer influenced the women's team that's heading to France as a serious contender to upset the U.S. Which is just one way his story has come full circle. Last week Byer, 58, was back in America bringing his youth program to the development academy of MLS's Houston Dynamo.

For more on Byer and Japanese soccer, catch the latest episode of Exploring Planet Fútbol at SI.TV