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We want a sixfold increase in British Asian footballers: PFA’s Riz Rehman

​​Despite being the largest ethnic minority group in the country, only a small number of British Asian persons feature in professional leagues in the United Kingdom. In fact, there are only less than 150 Asians among almost 15,000 players in the academy system around the country at the moment.

But the Professional Footballers’ Association is aiming to increase that number manifold with its Asian Inclusion Mentoring Scheme (AIMS) by providing a structured support network to those players who are already in the system with the hope they will help inspire a new crop of players from the community.

Working on the programme, launched in 2020, as mentors are some of the best known Asian names in football including former Wolverhampton Wanderers defender Danny Batth, ex-Swansea City full-back Neil Taylor, Shrewsbury Town’s Mal Benning and former Fulham defender and current Portsmouth development coach Zesh Rehman among others.

But it is Zesh’s brother, former Brentford player Riz Rehman, who is overseeing the programme to bring more Asian players and coaches into the sport by connecting the youngsters with senior players who have already tread the path and providing support and advice for organisations working towards more British Asian inclusion in football.

Rehman, like his brother Zesh who was one of the first British Asians to play in the Premier League, is also a former professional footballer who came through the ranks to reach the first team of Brentford who were playing in League One back then before a serious leg injury cut short his playing career.

“I always knew I wanted to stay in the game. I did my coaching license but I wanted to help other Asian players to have a career in the sport too,” Rehman said. He was first involved in his brother’s foundation – the Zesh Rehman Foundation – doing grassroots projects for players from the Asian community and then the ‘Sidelined-2-Sidelines’ initiative which provided coach education and mentoring for Asian coaches.

In 2013, he joined the players’ union as an education advisor and later was named the Player Inclusion Executive at the PFA when the AIMS launched in 2020. “With AIMS, once a British Asian joins an academy, they become a part of a peer-to-peer mentoring programme where they can learn from older players which will inspire them and their families,” Rehman said.

“If you are a player from a white or Black background getting picked by a club’s academy, chances are that your parents would already know someone who’s been through the whole journey. But with Asian families, they most often do not have that network and creating one definitely makes that journey a lot better and faster.”

Rehman’s role involves holding regular meetings with the senior and academy players, connecting the young scholars and their families with the seniors, being a connection between the player, club and the union and also delivering workshops for football clubs around equality, diversity and inclusion.

Only less than one percent of the 15,000 players currently in the academies will go on to make a living out of football, so it’s always a tall order for any player to make it as a professional and if you are an Asian, it gets even more difficult. Adding to the challenge is the fact that the clubs now recruit not just from across the country, but from around the world.

“Sport England data shows that Asian participation in football is at the same level as the white or Black community. But that number does not translate into players in the academy for the Asian community,” Rehman said, adding that it might be because the clubs recruit from established grassroots clubs while Asian grassroots clubs are often overlooked.

“Interestingly, the players on the AIMS programme who won scholarships or professional contracts did not come from these Asian clubs. They play in mixed teams, so I think we need to see players coming out of their comfort zones and playing for teams which are mixed, which will help them get noticed more,” Rehman said.

However, he said, the Premier League’s South Asian Action Plan has helped connect the professional clubs with these Asian teams. “We also need to make sure that we’ve got coaches from the Asian community who are qualified and dedicated to their own development to train these players,” he said.

Under Rehman’s watchful eyes are some of the most promising Asian players currently coming through in British football – like Leicester City’s Arjan Raikhy, Birmingham City’s Brandon Khela, Sheffield United’s Sai Sachdev and Blackburn Rovers winger Dilan Markanday.

But that is still not enough Asian players that Rehman and PFA would like to see in the system. “I think the PFA’s initiative has grown since its launch and we need to make it even bigger by working together with the Football Association, Premier League, the English Football League (EFL) and other stakeholders,” Rehman said.

“We need to look at how we can get more players into the academies. At the moment, we just don’t have enough of them in the lower age groups and there is a need to get more youngsters involved which can only happen if all the stakeholders work together.”

So, what will be an ideal number of Asian players in the sport? “We know from the Sport England data that around six percent of those playing football in the UK are Asians. So, our goal is to see six percent of footballers in the professional game being Asian and it is what we are working towards with our initiatives,” Rehman said.

Photo: Professional Footballers’ Association

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  • Adwaidh Rajan

    Adwaidh Rajan is a journalist with more than 10 years of experience covering sports. He has written for Indian newspapers The Times of India and The New Indian Express as well as websites like ESPN and FOX Sports Asia.