Zesh Rehman believes he knows why there are so few British-born Asian footballers. "There are no role models," he says. Last Saturday the 21-year-old Fulham defender, whose parents are from Pakistan, became the first to start a Premiership match when he lined up against Tottenham Hotspur. In doing so, Rehman became that role model.
"I see it as an honour," he says. "Ever since I was a kid I've always wanted to be a footballer, so to be playing at a Premiership club is like a dream come true. I don't think there is a barrier if you are good enough. [But] it doesn't help that there are no Asian role models - kids need to have someone to aspire to."
Rehman may believe there are no barriers, but there is a problem. A recent report by the Commission for Racial Equality claimed that there were just 10 British-born Asian footballers attached to the club academies. If anything, the numbers are falling. "That's scary," says Rehman when the figure is put to him. "I thought there would be a lot more Asian players than that. It's quite scary to think there are so few, but I do feel that once a few players come through others will follow."
It had been thought that Michael Chopra was going to be the first. But although the young striker has played for Newcastle United - Fulham's opponents today - he has not started in the Premiership.
Rehman acknowledges that stereotypes exist. "Not good enough, not strong enough, wrong diet," he says, although he adds: "When I was younger my mum used to make a lot of curries and stuff like that. But now she knows that I need carbohydrates."
Rehman was born in Birmingham and started playing football "on the streets like most kids do". From there he progressed through school, district and county teams "until I got spotted by Fulham at the age of 12 and I've been with them ever since". Despite his undoubted talent, he has been fortunate, especially as he says he has not experienced any racism at "professional level. I did hear racist comments in the Sunday leagues but nothing too bad," he says.
Piara Power, from the anti-racism campaign Kick It Out, says that many Asian footballers don't even get the opportunity to be spotted in the first place. "We have been saying to the FA for a long time that you need to be telling the people who identify young talent at the academy level, 'You will be scouting these types of communities'. The rewards are there."
Nevertheless, many Asian players have simply given up hope. Suroth Miah, of the Bangladesh Football Association, says that "whether it was racism or discrimination or people deemed them not talented enough", a lot of Asians "tried out football, represented their school teams and some were even with professional clubs, but they couldn't make the next step up". So his organisation was established. "Because they were not getting anywhere they thought they'd have a better chance if the whole community came together," he says.
Rehman, for one, cautions against Asian leagues. "I believe the leagues should be mixed," he says. "I don't feel that you should need separate leagues because if you're good enough then you'll make it." His experience is a good one, although he adds: "We do need more scouts to look at the players. The talent is there, it just needs to be seen."
Rashid Mama is one of the few Asian scouts, working for Leicester City. "We visit a lot of primary schools where there is a high Asian population and we deliver free school coaching in school time and after-school activities," he says. "If you look back, it took about 15 or 20 years for the Afro-Caribbeans to make the breakthrough. We have to break down our own barriers. What we've got is a lot of parents who came from India or Pakistan and want their children to do better with jobs and be more academic."
Rehman says his own parents insisted that he did not neglect his schoolwork. "My parents were very supportive and they made sacrifices to help me by buying all the gear I needed and giving me lifts to and from games and training," he says. "As well as encouraging my football they also made sure that I continued with my education and got my GCSEs. But there was never anything like I had to become a doctor or whatever."
His football has, however, got him into conflict at home. "I do remember one time they weren't too pleased with me," Rehman says. "Me and my friends used to sneak off and play football when we should've been at the mosque - my parents caught me out and I got blasted! But now we look back and laugh about it, although at the time it was no joke." He is a Muslim. "[But] I'm not 100 per cent strict. For example, I'm unable to fast during Ramadan as I need to train and play, but I'll make up for this in other ways."
Fulham have great hopes. "Zesh is a great athlete," says their manager, Chris Coleman. "His attitude to the game is incredible. He studies the sport, studies his performances, trains like a demon. I remember when he was 17 he asked if he could clean my boots, which is rare these days, because apprentices no longer have to do that, which I think is bad. I said yes, and he then took the opportunity to ask me questions."
Although other Asians have appeared in the Premiership, Coleman is at a loss to explain why none has featured in a starting line-up before. He says: "We have one or two in the academy, but Zesh is the only one who is close to the first team. I don't know why they don't make the breakthrough." There is work being done by the FA and the clubs but, as Mama admits, "it would be nice if someone made the breakthrough at the top level, because that is where the media focuses more". Zesh Rehman is doing just that.
British-born Asian players
Michael Chopra: Product of Newcastle's youth academy, his substitute appearances include a cameo at the Nou Camp. Aged 20, now on loan to Barnsley.
Harpal Singh: Talented Leeds left-footed winger, 23. Has been hampered by injury. Loan spells at Bristol City, Bradford and Bury.
Shaheh Ahmed: Joined Wycombe Wanderers on a one-year contract from Wimbledon's academy. A 19-year-old striker, his family are from Bangladesh.
Ahmed Rifat: England youth defender joined Reading from Charlton. Called into senior squad at 18. Now on loan at Kingstonian.
Anwar Uddin: Started career with West Ham and has moved through the leagues to play for Dagenham & Redbridge. London-born, 23-year-old defender.Reuse content