The Grassroots Mission for Chinese Football
    2012-08-22 19:17:31     CRIENGLISH.com      Web Editor: Yihang
CRI's Stuart Wiggin spoke to Tom Byer, a renowned youth development coach, who has been brought on board to help develop grassroots football in China.

Tom Byer, renowned youth development coach, alongside the legendary Zinedine Zidane during a football skills clinic in Japan. [Photo: Tomsan.com]

By Stuart Wiggin

Football is one of, if not the most popular spectator sport in China. Yet, despite recent massive investment at the upper echelons of China's domestic league, the country lags far behind nations such as the United States, South Korea and Japan in terms of grassroots development, as evidenced by the recent performance of such countries in the Olympics. The government is hoping to change all this via the China School Football Program (CSF), first initiated in 2009. The program intends to give young children from the age of 8 years old the opportunity to get involved in football from a young age and develop the basic techniques needed to fall in love with the game. This year, the CSF enlisted expert help in the form of Tom Byer, a renowned youth development coach, and his company T3 in order to boost the program's chances of success.

In 2009, Chinese authorities recognized the need to foster grassroots development in order to improve the standard of football within the country. The China School Football Program, a joint cooperation between the State General Administration of Sports and the Education Ministry, with the Chinese Football Association on board as technical consultant, was the result and the program is being rolled out at schools across the country. Tom Byer, famous in Japan for training a generation of children via workshops, comic books and television programs, was enlisted to provide support to the CSF and develop grassroots football across the nation. Byer, a former professional player himself, has devoted his post-professional career to developing grassroots football in Asia.
 
The success of Japanese football in recent years has been directly attributed to Byers' efforts in encouraging development from the bottom up. "I got heavy into youth development in Japan," Byers told CRI. "I introduced a technical coaching program that was modeled after the Dutchman Wiel Coerver, who basically created a program for young players with the idea of trying to make their technical ability to much better, from a very young age; 5,6,7,8. It's the optimum age where skill acquisition takes place." Byer's appearance on national television every weekday morning, in a show called "Tomsan Soccer Techniques", which ran from 1998 through 2010, managed to influence the current generation of Japanese players.
 
After devoting himself to improving the level of football in Japan for more than two decades, Byer has now set his sights on China. The CSF represents an attempt to start delivering programs and football through schools as opposed to pursuing a top-down approach and only investing at the very upper echelons of the game. According to Byer, "It's really about putting your resources into the young kids and focusing on them, but in China and a lot of other places, they're throwing money at the top but the bottom line is it doesn't work. It has to be done organically, it has to be done from the bottom, and grown from the bottom up so there's a healthy platform, and you get millions of kids playing the game."

The high profile signings of players within the Chinese Super League has certainly created more interest in the league, but this has done nothing to help develop the lower levels of the game or nurture local talent. Byer drew comparisons with the current state of Chinese football to that of America in the 1970s. "There's not a huge link at what's happening at the top and what's happening at the bottom. It's a bit of a misconception to think, 'Wow, let's bring the stars in'. My country tried that in 1970, we got Pele, Beckenbauer, Cruyff and George Best. It did very little to produce quality players at the grassroots."
 
Since 2009, the CSF program has extended its coverage to some 90 cities, up from the original 44 cities, and is now being conducted in thousands of schools across the country. "These schools that are participating in the CSF, they're implementing, or at least they're getting some little tidbit of football, through their PE class. Once you become a CSF school, all the kids are getting some kind of first touch of football inside that school," Byer noted. But Byer also acknowledged that in China there is a certain amount of expectation from various quarters in relation to grassroots football and sport in general, with many domestic media outlets focusing on one thing, "Everywhere I go, we have the same question: 'When are we going to be better than Japan?'" However, Byer added, "There are no quick successes in grassroots football. It's like a ten, twenty year program. Japan has only just started to see the benefits of that," a point that the Chinese authorities seem to be aware of.

Tom Byer's partner at T3, Marcus Kam, elaborated upon the goals of the CSF. "The whole platform is not about producing the next best player, it would be nice to have that as a bi-product, but the football playing population in China has shrunk immensely, especially at youth level. One of the key things is to re-popularize football, try to get football into the school agenda or PE agenda, and just getting more kids to play." At the moment, Byers is determined to get the CSF coaches up to speed on basic fundamental technical training, so that the children who participate in the program can acquire the basic level of skills needed to enjoy football and want to continue to play in the future. But both Byer and Kam also pointed out that the CSF faces an obstacle in the form of the traditional views of Chinese parents. "Many parents still see sports as a distraction, so on top of just teaching kids basic football skills, we're also communicating with the parents, and teaching the principals of schools that sport is part of education. You have to have kids that are healthy to have kids that are smart."

Interestingly enough, Byer also noted that the improvement of grassroots football in China will not only benefit the country, but also the entire footballing region. "A country like Japan needs a healthy China. The problem is, now Japan has become so strong, that to really get to that next level, just like when I talk about players, if you want to get the best players better you've got to improve the lower levels; same thing on a country level. For Japan to get to the next level, they need a strong Korea, which they have, they need Australia, they need China. What happens is, when Japan plays in qualifiers, whether it's the Olympics or the AFC, they kind of cruise through them."

There are 300 million children under the age of 14 in China. This remarkable figure presents a challenge for authorities when attempting to carry out coordinated programs which aim to promote sports. There are plans to extend the CSF program to high school and university students in the coming years in order to provide an incentive for children to continue playing football in their later years. With the enlistment of Byer as an advisor to the CSF, it is clear that the authorities are starting to take grassroots development seriously, and over the coming years, the popularity of football among younger children should hopefully increase.

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