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zeshbeing awardedthepfacommunityawardin2010The season for me is a third of the way down the line and my team (Kitchee SC) has continued our form from last season by being top of the pile. Following my last blog which gave an introduction into football in Asia and the massive potential in the region for players, coaches and clubs I was very please to have been contacted by several PFA members wanting to find out more. Some of those lads are now preparing for trials in Asia in the next window so hopefully by the time of writing my next blog that would have gathered speed and they will be back to what they love doing best and playing competitive football once again for a living.

Another issue which seems to have gathered a lot of momentum recently, not only in the media in the UK but also here in Hong Kong and around Asia is the recent racism debacle surrounding several players and clubs. The Premier league is well supported and recognised worldwide so that means the positive, as well as, negative issues are unfortunately highlighted and given just as much attention. The affects for the players and clubs involved are very damaging both domestically and further a field - in terms of the club brand it can potentially be the end of a major sponsor from Asia because nobody wants to be associated with any forms of racism. More importantly the reputation of football in the UK needs to be kept in tact by quickly wiping away the negative perception that unfortunately these cases have contributed to right now. For this to happen we as PFA members must all link together to achieve more.

Racial discrimination against black professional footballers has attracted much media attention in recent months. With high profile events such as the Terry and Ferdinand saga it has reignited the need to discuss and revisit anti-racism in football. We constantly hear of the barriers that black mangers encounter and the overt racism that black players face. But, it is necessary to point out that racism attacks all minority ethnic groups, not just black footballers.

Yes, despite the efforts of football's key stakeholders and anti-racist organisations, we have to accept that racism, in all its forms, is still manifest in English professional football. I understand and sympathise with the obstacles black players have endured since entering the sport and while setting up a 'Black Players Association' may appear a positive step forward, it may actually further isolate the black 'community' and exclude other groups. For example, can British Asians, East Asians or South Americans (who also face racial discrimination) join in this association or would they need their own association? Hence, creating a mono-ethnic or a 'black association' would be counter-productive and would in turn exacerbate the division between social groups.

If we are to seriously attempt to combat the racism that black footballers face, surely we should then broaden this investigation and explore the racism that British Asian footballers encounter. British Asians and particularly British Asian Muslims have traditionally been excluded from the professional and grass roots game - this group face some of the barriers that black footballers encounter, however, Muslims also battle against forms of cultural racism and Islamophobia. Those of Pakistani, Indian and Bangladeshi descent have therefore remained excluded as a result of decades of discrimination. Asian football communities have had to challenge stereotypes that have been forced upon them and led to the set up of 'Asian only' leagues. I always encourage Asians kids to play in mixed leagues and not isolate themselves or ask for any special attention. I grew up with racial barriers but if I had decided to play in an Asian only league that would not have developed me as a person or player and would have made me settle for a comfort zone. Of course it's not easy but holding a grudge does not solve anything, forgiveness liberates the soul and allows for eventual progress.

Stereotypes such as having a poor diet, physicality, religion and culture are just some of the common-sense rationales that have been posed to explain the British Asian under-representation. I launched my own charitable organisation (Zesh Rehman Foundation) which is now working hard to help change perceptions and dispel some of the myths surrounding British Asians in football by providing more opportunities in disadvantaged communities - combating cultural and religious barriers associated with communities which have a high number of Asians. But most importantly, we do not just target specific groups, we ensure that we are an inclusive organisation and thus we involve all members from all communities regardless of ethnicity, religion, background, culture, gender, or disability. Put simply, creating a 'Black Footballers Association' constitutes a step back, rather than forward. We must ensure that minority groups are all given an equal say while understanding that racism does not just affect black footballers, it affects all minority ethnic groups.

I have seen some players deciding to boycott the Kick It Out t-shirt during the week of action which has caused some controversy – the views of those players who did not wear the shirts should be listened to so that we can all move forward together in striving for equality within the game. The fact that this issue has attracted so much attention means the number of cases over the past two or three decades have significantly decreased so we must not lose sight of the good work that has been done by Kick It Out, Show Racism the Red Card, the FA and the PFA. The preventative measure in place have certainly been scrutinised with intensity recently but I believe we will all learn from this to make the game better for everyone.

Rather than point the blame at KIO, we should instead aim to tackle from the bottom upwards rather than top down - more education and work is essential within the grass roots sphere. Ultimately racism stems from ignorance and a lack of education so we need to work with young people continually to make them aware of what is not acceptable as these are the future players, coaches, fans, administrators and decision makers of our game.

In sum, it is important to understand that the current focus should widen its lens and acknowledge that other minority ethnic groups also face barriers. The paucity of black managers and coaches is a real problem and must be challenged. I welcome the PFA's six-point plan to tackle racism and discrimination in the game but the discussion must be widened to incorporate the struggles that other groups face. Therefore, educating the players, coaches, managers and relevant authorities about the barriers that all minority ethnic groups encounter is essential and anyone found guilty of racial abuse be it a player, fan or official should be given a lifetime ban. To play football and be involved the game is an honour and a privilege which should be treated with respect - which means respecting everyone from ALL backgrounds and cultures.

 

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Samir Butt of Bradford City FC

 

Two of the Zesh Rehman Foundation (ZRF) coaches and peer mentors Rehan Mirza and Samir Butt are to go head to head during the under 10's Football League Academy fixture between Notts County and Bradford City FC.

PFA Management Committee Member Zesh Rehman, who launched the ZRF to offer support to aspiring players and coaches from minority communities said: "Although black players are well represented in terms of numbers across all four professional leagues, the same cannot be said in terms of representation in coaching and management roles within the professional game. With calls for the 'Rooney Rule' to be implemented in the recruitment process and various leading figures asking for a level playing field, the ZRF is supporting aspiring coaches from minority backgrounds to carve a career within football".

Two ZRF British Asian coaches currently leading the way for future generations within the Football League are Rehan Mirza of Notts County FC and Samir Butt of Bradford City FC. Both Rehan and Samir are British born Asians who have a love for the game and an ambition to coach at the highest level. Both are currently coaches of the under 10's at their respective clubs and peer mentors for the ZRF.

Rehan Mirza, who has been with Notts County since 2010 is currently working towards his UEFA A Licence via the FA Coach Bursary Fund. Rehan continued:

"With the lack of representation in football amongst the Asian community, I decided look at the various opportunities for somebody like myself to be involved in coaching. From starting as a volunteer, I have managed to gain suitable experience from various groups within community football. I understood that without qualifications, it would make it very hard to follow a pathway within the game. I decided to undertake the Level 1 coaching qualification and then network with the relevant people within the game".

rehanRehan Mirza of Notts County

 

Samir Butt has held the under 10's position at Bradford City since the 2007/08 season and is currently awaiting assessment for his UEFA B. Samir has been a focal point of the ZRF since its launch in May 2010 at Valley Parade. Talking about how he got into coaching, Samir continued:

"I started in 2007 just before entering higher education. I was lucky enough to land a role with a Local Authority where I delivered multi-sport and football activities to young people from marginalised communities to gain experience. I was then presented with an opportunity to coach at Bradford City Football Club which I accepted. I started of by working in the Talent Identification and Development Centres before progressing into the Centre of Excellence, which is now the newly formed Academy since the introduction of the EPPP".

Talking about the upcoming fixture on September 2nd in Nottingham, Rehan continued:

"This is a fantastic opportunity to demonstrate that the Asian community is represented within coaching roles in professional football. It is very exciting to think that another coach living elsewhere of the same ethnic background will be in opposition to you during a professional meeting. Hopefully, there will be many more duels to come".

Samir feels that coaches from minority backgrounds should not expect any special treatment and when their opportunity arises they need to grasp it with both hands.

"There are no shortcuts to success in this industry - work as hard as possible to develop and improve, even more so when things get tough".

Zesh, currently plying his trade in Asian has high hopes for both Rehan and Samir.

"I've got to know both Rehan and Samir really well. Rehan did a fantastic job when he managed the Pakistan X1 in 2010 and it's great to see him pursuing his UEFA A Licence. I know Samir is held highly at my old club Bradford City and he did a fantastic job as the lead coach for ZRF when we launched in Bradford. Both are great roles models within their communities and hopefully the game on Sunday will be a draw so both go home happy".

Other ZRF coaches and mentors working at professional football clubs include Irfan Kawri (Rochdale AFC), Fawwad Uddin (AFC Wimbledon) and Rizwan Aboo (Crystal Palace FC).

 

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Riz Rehman with FIFA President Sepp Blatter

The Zesh Rehman Foundation (ZRF) was invited to be part of the Kick it Out and FIFA football conference at Wembley on Tuesday (31st July 2012) evening. The conference marked an alliance in the ongoing effort to make football, at all levels and in all parts of the world, free from exclusion and discrimination.

Following a football season that has been shadowed by different on and off-field incidents, Kick it Out and FIFA brought together different stakeholders from English Football including the FA, Premier League, Show Racism the Red Card, the PFA and other leading charitable organisations.

ZRF Operations Manager, Riz Rehman said: "It was an honour to be invited to this fantastic gathering at Wembley held by Kick it Out and FIFA.

"Zesh has been an ambassador for Kick it Out for the best part of 10 years and it's great to see them get the recognition their work deserves.

"The ZRF shares similar values to both Kick it Out and FIFA in promoting equality and inclusion at all levels of the game, including the grassroots to achieve positive change.

"It was also great to have the opportunity to speak with Mr Blatter about the work of ZRF which he commended and very supportive of.

"We look forward to working more closely with all stakeholder of the game to see people from all backgrounds better represented in the footballing industry.

Both FIFA and Kick it Out have come under some scrutiny over the last year or so due to many incidents but the event at Wembley kick starts a new working relationship. The FIFA President Joseph S.Blatter pledged a desire to see more equality across all levels of the game.

"We want to work alongside Lord Ouseley and his team to teach people that discipline, fair play and respect should be not only on the field where there is a referee, but in everyday life too. We want to see people treated fairly irrespective of their religion, culture or colour."

Kick it Out Chairman, Lord Herman Ouseley told the 150 invited private guests: "Abuse on the football field goes on all the time. Most of the time it is driven by ignorance, hatred and bigotry.

"Football Authorities have worked tirelessly over the past two decades, and those in charge, both domestically and globally, have the power to make a change; there is still much to be done if we are to eradicate racism and other forms of racism from our game."

The issues regards to the lack of coaches and managers from Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) backgrounds in the professional game was also raised. There is an acute shortage of suitably qualified BME coaches working in football - representing only 4% of football coaches, with South Asians only represent 1% of all coaches in elite football.

FA Chairman David Bernstein committed himself to getting actively involved with projects focusing on tackling this imbalance.

"There is a need to address the levels of diversity and inclusion within the decision making structures of the game. I believe this must be a process from the bottom up.

"Our great responsibility should be to create opportunities for people from every background to get involved with the running of the game". 

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Zesh Rehman was told that his Pakistani background would prevent him from making a career in football but the former Premier League defender has proved anything is possible and is now inspiring a new generation of people and Asian footballers through his success in Asia. We caught up with Zesh to talk about the recent racism issues in football, Football in Asia and his future plans.

Having signed for the Hong Kong Premier League side just six months ago, Zesh has settled into his new surroundings seamlessly. An ever present at the heart of Kitchee's defence, the Pakistan international has lifted the Championship title, won the domestic League Cup and FA Cup, and reached the last 16 of the Asian Football Confederation Cup, in what has been a record-breaking campaign for the team.

"I am really enjoying life out in Hong Kong," said Zesh, one of the games leading ambassadors striving for equality. "There is a fantastic set-up at Kitchee and the standard of football is very good. It was such a good feeling to win my first trophy as a professional footballer, but then to go on and do the treble was an amazing feeling - and it has given me the bug to win more.

"It's great to be playing in a winning team with confidence so high. We play an attacking brand of football under the guidance of former Barcelona youth coach Josep Gambau. We welcome Arsenal in July during pre-season at the Hong Kong Stadium and I look forward rubbing shoulders once again with one of the top teams in Europe. It will be a tough game but if we can carry on the momentum I'm sure we will give them a good game."

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Off the pitch, Zesh continues to inspire a new generation of young people both in the UK and internationally. Since his arrival in Hong Kong, a new demographic of supporters have started to attend matches at Tseung Kwan O Sports Ground, something which has overwhelmed the former Fulham, Queens Park Rangers and Bradford City man.

"It is always nice to see the smiles on people's faces at matches. The Islamic Trust has been a focal point of Hong Kong for years but to now see students, teachers and families attend matches on a regular basis for the first time since my arrival is great. Football has the power to bring people together from all corners of the world".

Back in the UK until the end of June, Zesh is continuing to carry out work with the Zesh Rehman Foundation (ZRF), an initiative looking to change the perceptions and myths surrounding Asians in the game, football's governing bodies and other charitable organisations.

“It’s been non-stop since I landed back in the UK,” the 28-year-old said. “I was invited over to Ireland as a guest speaker on the Irish FA/UEFA Pro License to talk about the Asia market for current and future coaches and managers who will go on to manage at the highest level of the game.

"Coaching and management is something I see myself going into in the future and to be mingling with experienced professionals at such a young age will hold me in good stead for the future and hopefully inspire a new generation of Asian coaches".

Although based in Asia, Zesh keeps a close eye on developments back home. Speaking about the high-profile incidents which occurred during the season just gone and the debate surrounding Rio Ferdinand's omission from the England EURO 2012 squad, Zesh continued: "I have received many phone calls and emails from various media asking my views and opinions.

"This comes in regards to this season's incidents in the Premier League and now Rio's exclusion from the England squad, and what impact theses issues have on aspiring British Asian players, coaches and the parents who may want to gear their child towards professional football.

"As a young player coming through the ranks, Rio was a role model of mine and based on his ability alone he should be in the England squad for sure. For someone who has played at the top level for so long and performed for England on a consistent basis, to then be overlooked is disrespectful to a well-respected figure in the game.

"For those aspiring Asian players and coaches pursuing a career in the game, they should not be deterred from any negativity in the media but remain resolute in their pursuit of entering the football industry albeit as a player, coach, groundsman, referee, administrator, media representative or even as a supporter.

"Much has been said about recent racism in football and what barriers Asian players and coaches face but there is not just one underlying factor, it's a combination of several social issues and ignorance which stems from a lack of education".

Young people from the ZRF and Bolton Wanderers football and coach development project

The Zesh Rehman Foundation has officially joined forces with Bolton Wanderers Football Club Community Trust to help change the perceptions and myths surrounding Asians in football.

The partnership was born following the recent 'Audience with Zesh Rehman', which took place at Selhurst Park and was attended by Bolton Wanderers Community Trust Manager Ian Laithwaite.

Ian Laithwaite said: "The event in London addressed a range of issues including social inclusion, how to break down barriers and the future for British Asians in football. Although we have a high Asian population in Bolton, the trust has not managed to fully engage with the young people from Asian communities through football and after hearing of the success of the ZRF in London we were keen to develop a working partnership.

"British Asians are clearly under-represented at all levels of the game and this programme will allow young people to develop their skills through coaching clinics and be offered volunteer placements with Bolton Wanderers Football Club and the Community Trust".

The ZRF are now working in partnership with Bolton Wanderers to offer football and coaching opportunities to young people. The 'Football for All' programme to date has been a great success with 50+ young people attending weekly with plans to hold tournaments with other clubs which ZRF is involved with, as well as, take a team on tour overseas.

Riz Rehman, who is the Operations Manager for the ZRF continued: "The staff at Bolton have been fantastic and our North West Coordinator Irfan Kawri has been instrumental in promoting the partnership and getting the young people on board – some who even come by taxi from the other side of town.

"It has been a real challenge over the years in engaging the Asian community through football in Bolton, but over the last two months great progression has already been made through this joint initiative. There are currently no Asian coaches working within Bolton FC Centre of Excellence or Community Trust and this long term project aims to address that. We have proven that as an organisation we have the staff with the expertise to be the conduit between the club and the local community and help break down these barriers".

 

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