How England's next generation of south Asian footballers are reaching for the stars

Mentoring scheme offers support and guidance to young players dreaming of making it at the highest level

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Here is a startling fact. Of the 3,500 professional footballers in the top four divisions of the men’s game in England and Wales, only 16 are of south Asian heritage, that is players with an Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, Nepalese or Afghanistani background. Yet people from this group make up eight per cent of the UK population. Something does not quite add up.

The concerning statistic in this age of diversity, is why the Professional Footballers’ Association, spearheaded by Riz Rehman, the organisation’s player inclusion executive, is leading a campaign to attract more kids from that background into the game and to help those few already attached contracted to make it. Fewer than one per cent of players of south Asian heritage are in an academy system – barely 100.

The scheme is known as Aims – the Asian Inclusion Mentoring Scheme – where support, guidance and expertise is offered by current professional players from south Asian heritage to the next generation attempting to come through.

Rehman has first-hand knowledge of the situation. He played as a scholar for Brentford before a broken leg wrecked his career. His brother Zesh remains the only south Asian player to have ever featured in a Premier League game and that was for Fulham 18 years ago. Zesh is now the under 18s coach at Portsmouth. In their day they had no one to turn to.

“We want to make their journeys easier, to give players and families a helping hand, and be that conduit between the club and the player, to fast-track their learning,” Rehman explains.

Riz Rehman, the PFA's player inclusion executive. Photo: Riz Rehman/Twitter

The most high-profile participant in Aims – the poster boy if you like – is 19-year-old Zidane Iqbal of Manchester United, who has Pakistani and Iraqi parentage and is proving to be an inspiration for aspiring Asian footballers who see him breaking down barriers. “Of course I'd like to be a good role model,” Iqbal said in an interview earlier this year. “I see lots of people saying, 'Oh, you're a role model' and I try to take that on in everything I do.”

Rehman continues: “I have known Zidane since he was 15. He is one of those young players who has always jumped on zoom calls to talk to players. He talks about his experiences as a mentee and now as a mentor. He has always attended our face to face events, goes round giving fist pumps, having his picture taken. He never makes a fuss and is very humble and down to earth.”

Others in the scheme offering the benefit of their individual and invaluable experience to the nine to 16 age group and those aged 16-18 known as scholars, are Danny Batth, the Sunderland defender, Grimsby’s Otis Khan, Malvind Benning at Port Vale and Neil Taylor of Middlesbrough. Between them they have played more than 2,000 first class games.

Manchester United player Zidane Iqbal is proving to be an inspiration for aspiring Asian footballers. Getty

Practical sessions and open days have been rolled out at Arsenal, Blackburn, Aston Villa and Cardiff which have been attended by hundreds of youngsters and importantly their parents who gain a valuable insight into the workings of a top club, what a career pathway might look like and what it takes to make it in the ultra-competitive world of professional football. Most are the first generation born in the United Kingdom and are themselves passionate about the game.

Rehman says: “We show clubs the data we have collected which have led to the emerging talent days. There were none in the Arsenal academy system and their training ground at Hale End is in the heart of the East End.

“We worked with their scouts and held a massive recruitment drive in May which 120 attended. These are players who would normally never have been on the club’s radar.”

According to Sport England figures, six million under-18s play football. Of this number, six per cent are south Asian. The elite landscape consists of 15,000 players of whom 3,500 are professionals. Rehman would like eventually six per cent of that figure to be south Asians.

Over the past 18 months Rehman and his team have made every league club aware of the Aims campaign and provided information on how they can adapt to the needs of players from that heritage.

“Since 2010 I have been delivering workshops about supporting Muslim players and other needs of other players such as Hindus or Sikhs about for instance, vegetarian and Halal food.

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“We are working with Brighton who have Asian Muslim players and we have helped them to incorporate a multi-faith room at their training ground also at Aston Villa. Blackburn have had one at Ewood Park since 2018.”

For those who do not make the grade or slip through the net there is advice and education on other career paths in the game, such as coaching, physiotherapy, strength and conditioning, and sports science. The next event is at Arsenal on Wednesday, November 16.

Rehman described the strategy he and the PFA has developed. “Over the last 30 years too much of the focus around south Asian players has been negative.

“We wanted to change that narrative – instead of focusing on the lack of Asian players we started focusing on the individual players’ journeys; how they came through, how they overcame setbacks, what they were doing differently to other players, how they were managing injuries. It is vital to accentuate the positives but also be realistic. It takes ten years to make a professional footballer.”

Part of the problem has been that clubs have long had their own networks and local grass roots clubs to whom they would traditionally turn for young talent. They had not reached out to 'hidden communities' and, in truth, did not know how to. “So we developed the open days and take possible talent to the clubs,” Rehman says.

Zesh Rehman, right, playing for Fulham against Arsenal in 2004. Getty

At their open day Arsenal identified 10 players who were invited back for an academy development centre experience and three, in the nine to 11 age group, are still on trial.

“We are in no doubt the quality is there,” Rehman continues. “It is a case of how they get seen, and if they get seen does the club have the resources to bring them in and put them through the system and once in the system to provide the measure or support they need to progress? ”

It is a work in progress but the reaction has been positive and the signs encouraging.

Yousuf Sajjad, the Arsenal academy head of emerging talent for the 17 to 23 age group, sums it up: “This project is about looking to the future and spurring on change by creating opportunities.

“Arsenal along with the PFA have invested in a long-term model which provides support and hopefully continues to encourage the next generation of south Asian prospects in chasing their dreams of playing football at the highest level.”

Updated: November 11, 2022, 6:00 PM
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