Zesh Rehman was the first ever British Asian player to start a Premiership game when he lined up for Fulham in 2003 and has gone on to play across all 4 English divisions and more recently, in the Thai and Hong Kong Premier Leagues.
As well as playing football, Zesh has been a big ambassador for young British Asian players. He launched the ‘Zesh Rehman foundation’ in 2010 to get more children from all backgrounds playing the sport and getting involved in training days. More recently, a new project named ‘Sidelined 2 Sidelines’ has gotten FA funding and aims to get more coaches from ethnic minorities coaching at a higher standard.
His stance on the reason behind the lack of British Asian players in the English leagues is clear, it is not down to a racist system, but instead down to these young players feeling excluded from the system.
“There are a lot of misconceptions and myths surrounding Asian players, ultimately in my opinion if you are good enough you will come through the system, regardless of where you are from or what your background is and i think too many young Asian kids use that as a ready made excuse to explain why they haven’t progressed to a professional level.
A lot of the young lads have been led to believe that that is the case (excluded due to their ethnicity) and they have believed it rather than just try and focus on their game”
The FA recently stated that the key to getting more young Asian footballers involved in the game was to get more Asian coaches involved and thus giving these young lads people to look up to, role models as such, who are seriously lacking in British football at the moment.
Kevin Coleman, the FA’s inclusions project coordinator stated recently that if you have more Asian coaches they’re more likely to bring more Asian kids and families from their local areas into football.
Recent statistics show that of 5 million Asians living in Britain, there are just 9 registered professional footballers, and out of 20,000 coaches registered with the FA, just 500 are from an ethnic minority background. When you consider the populations of these ethnic minorities in the UK, it is staggering how little have no involvement in the countries biggest sport and pastime.
Rehman believes that the coaching and training days for young Asian footballers such as Chelsea’s Asian Stars day are not the solution to the problem, and while they are extremely good for the sport and getting young Asian players involved in football they do actually further highlight the issue. The fact that these days have to happen is down to the fact that the young Asian lads see no other way of progressing to a professional level.
“What needs to be done is what we are doing, working with the PFA and the community in order to get the young lads feeling as though they are part of a club. Also, we need more coaches they can relate to so that lads from a similar background have these role models.
It is definitely a slow burner, and not something that will happen overnight. It needs to be done by a step by step process so that we can ensure more representation from the Asian community”
Rehman also suggests that the problem with Asian participation in the sport is part of a wider social problem that sees young Asian footballers feel excluded from British footballing culture.
“We are trying to get them to realize that their background is irrelevant to playing football in the UK and we want them to embrace the UK’s footballing culture without losing their roots and own culture.
It comes down to educating and mentoring the key decision makers, the coaches, the scouts and the people who do not have an extensive knowledge of the Asian community. Once these kinds of things start working together we should start to see a rise in participation”
Obviously, people like Zesh Rehman and others are extremely passionate about this subject and are helping the cause massively by raising awareness and actually doing something about the problem. But it is a problem that will not go away overnight and needs constant support from everyone from the FA to the coaches and teams at grassroots level who need to get more young people from an Asian background interested in the sport.