Rise and rise of the young Asian stars

The boys for Brazil: Leeds-based brothers bound for Rio with a desire to make it and showcase English talent
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The Independent Football

Up to now it has been one-way traffic. Juninho, Gilberto and Edu are among the boys from Brazil who have been imported into British football. Kleberson is said to be on his way. But this month will see the road to Rio, for so long a cul-de-sac, opening up and England exporting boys to Brazil.

The Pakistan-born, Leeds-domiciled Akram brothers, whose family name suggests they could be playing a different sort of ball game, will make history by joining the Brazilian First Division club Resende on a year's contract.

The teenagers, - Irfan, 18, and 17-year-old Mohammed - are unlikely pioneers. Although their home is virtually on the back doorstep of Leeds United, they have no great desire to play for their local Premiership club, or, indeed, any other English team. Irfan, who was on the books of the Unibond League club Farsley Celtic last season, also had a trial with Huddersfield, but says he "hated" the sort of football he was asked to play.

Instead, they have caught the Brazilian bug as students of the Yorkshire-based Futebol de Salao, an academy which teaches kids how to play samba soccer, run by Simon Clifford, an ex-schoolteacher.

But how Irfan and Mohammed have ended up signing for a Brazilian team is a remarkable story. They came with their family from Pakistan in 1994, neither speaking English. Nor had they kicked a football in earnest.

Four years ago they turned up at one of Clifford's training camps, liked what they saw and learnt so much that they paid their own way to Rio by doing odd jobs and factory work in their spare time while studying for their A-levels. Their family arranged with Muslim friends for them to live in a small apartment near a mosque on Copacabana Beach, where they were spotted playing beach football with the locals by someone who knew the Brazilian legend Jairzinho, whom Clifford had already asked to keep an eye on them.

Jairzinho arranged for them to have a trial with Resende, the equivalent of a Nationwide First Division team based an hour from Rio. Afterwards they wanted to stay in Brazil, but their father insisted they return home to Beeston in south Leeds to finish their education. Now, pending A-level results, both have deferred places at Leeds University for a year, so they can go back to Brazil to join Resende's youth squad later this month.

This arrangement was cemented when Jairzinho met up with them again during a recent coaching visit to Futebol de Salao, which now conducts regular clinics nationwide, with some 40,000 youngsters learning how to Brazilian blend it like Ronaldinho rather than just bend it like Beckham.

Says Clifford: "When they first turned up they couldn't speak a lot of English, but they were both very nice lads who soon became part of our set-up. Above everything they had great application and determination. They live on the other side of the city, and sometimes when they had no transport they would come on the same bike.

"They obviously fell in love with the Brazilian way of football, but the first time we knew of their intention to go there was when they asked us to help them with their visa applications last summer. I am not saying they are potentially world-class players, or even the most talented youngsters we have had here, but they do have skills and their attitude is exemplary. This is what sets them apart. They could certainly make it as professionals at some level, but they are adamant they want it to be overseas. Neither seems to like the English style of football."

The brothers are shy but polite and well-mannered. Irfan, a midfielder who can play on either side of the pitch, explains why he and Mohammed, a right-back, prefer to do it the Brazilian way. "Here you just don't get the ball. In Brazil, when I stand there, I always get the ball when I call for it and I am encouraged to express myself.

"The five-a-side game with Futebol de Salao has provided us with the platform to develop our skills. The 11-a-side game, though, is what football is all about. Now, when you get a big ball, in a big space, with a big goal, it seems easy. We are both really excited about the opportunity Resende have given us."

But what if Leeds made them an offer? "I think we'd prefer to do well in Brazil. There could not be a better place to play football. So many great players come from over there." Mohammed says: "This is obviously the chance of a lifetime. Brazil normally sends its footballers to other countries, not the other way around, so we feel very honoured."

Clifford sees the Akrams' story as another step along the path towards changing the way the game is played here, and he is surprised that English clubs have not tapped into what he believes is a burgeoning market of Asian talent.

"We have had great success in attracting Asian youngsters into our 800 schools around the country, and the initiative of these two lads will certainly give more Asian families the confidence to encourage their youngsters into football," Clifford says. "There is some fantastic talent out there, an abundance of Asian and black kids who want to play the game. But clubs have to go into the communities, like Beeston where these boys live, to find them." If they don't, then obviously the big boys from Brazil will.