There are so many parts of Maziar Kouhyar’s story that are uplifting, but it’s his reaction to just scoring a goal again that really raises the spirits.
“When that ball went in, it was like there was a lock on my heart that just opened,” the Hereford midfielder tells The Independent. “My love for football just came back.”
It might have been just one goal in one half of football in a friendly against Port Vale - but it was also one long-awaited chance. It wasn’t too long ago that Kouhyar thought even that might be beyond him, and that he would be lost to the game forever.
The 23-year-old first spoke to The Independent as recently as October, in what was an attempt to re-start his professional career, but also to highlight some of the particular challenges that British-Asians face in football. Kouhyar told of how he’d suffered racial abuse but didn't complain out of fear of being labelled a “troublemaker”. That saw him drift out of the game, and ensure there was little route back once he suffered two serious injuries after a spell at Walsall.
It seemed a classic story - to use the midfielder’s own words - of British-Asian footballers only being allowed to fail once. Much of that is down to negative perceptions within the game, that feed into the fact there had only been 10 players of that background among the UK’s 4,000 professional footballers. It has instead become a story to inspire, that can help change perceptions, as well those statistics. Kouhyar seized the chance offered to him by Hereford manager Josh Gowling.
“I’m buzzing,” Kouhyar says. “A lot of it back in October was just hope. I never expected for it to happen so quickly.”
That’s saying something. Kouhyar is not just back in football with the National League North club, but set to play at Wembley this Saturday, in Hereford’s FA Trophy final meeting with AFC Hornchurch. All of this has also prompted a return to the Afghanistan national team, with the Birmingham-raised midfielder called up for their Qatar 2022 qualifiers in June. From recreational five-a-side pitches to Wembley, and the road to the World Cup, is quite a turnaround.
It is most of all testament to Kouhyar himself, but also to Gowling, and the player’s "BE" management company. The latter were launched by Razi Hassan last year with the aim of increasing participation in sport among under-represented communities. They reached out to Gowling, who was only too happy to give Kouhyar a chance.
The former Bournemouth centre-half empathised with Kouhyar, having suffered the same cruciate ligament injury himself as a player. Gowling also defies a trend in the game himself, as one of only nine black managers in the top seven divisions. He will be one of only two black British managers - along with Paul Ince - to win a trophy at Wembley if Hereford claim victory on Saturday. A trained counsellor who also has a degree in psychology, Gowling felt some responsibility when he was presented with Kouhyar’s story.
“Maz first and foremost said he’s just someone who needs an opportunity,” Gowling says, as he sits beside Kouhyar for a Zoom call from Hereford’s training ground. “A lot of the time in football, players don’t get where they need to get because they don’t have that opportunity.
“Some people don’t get that second chance. Football’s a very cut-throat industry. It’s difficult to get in. There’s not a big Asian representation.
“I’m in a position now where I can give people those opportunities.
“For me, listening to his story, to what he’s been through with his injuries, it hit home for me because I’d been through similar. At the end of the day, giving someone the opportunity to come in and train is nothing to anyone. If I can give somebody an opportunity to better themselves, I’m all for that.
“So, we heard about him, knew about his qualities, knew he’d played League One games - I had a look at those games just to make sure they weren’t selling me for a dud!”
It quickly became apparent that wasn’t the case. Kouhyar admits to naturally suffering a few nerves on just returning to training with a team, but it really only took him one session to get back into it.
“When I got the call to come to training, I was nervous,” he says. “But the players and staff were so friendly and welcoming.”
Gowling good-naturedly nudges Kouhyar when the midfielder is asked how long it took him to get his touch back.
“A little bit,” he laughs. It’s really match fitness, though. It’s completely different to just running, so that’s something I’m still working on. But in terms of the touch and that, it’s still there.”
And how. Kouhyar came on for the second half against Port Vale, and didn’t just take his chance. He took control, scoring a sublime goal that saw him wrong-foot a defender before driving a left-footed shot into the far corner from outside the box.
He instantly rediscovered his love for the game, but Gowling instantly realised he may have uncovered a gem.
“It was a perfect opportunity to look at him and see what he was about,” the Hereford boss says. “Obviously when he came in the first day, straight away you could see his qualities. When you have had a player play in the Football League, they have a certain air and grace about them, a certain touch. It’s the difference between elite players and amateur players, the way they move. Their co-ordination is different. The way they manipulate the ball is different, their head movements, just the way they see the game is different. Obviously he’s got all that in abundance. You could see straight away with his touches. He’s calm, he’s got a good touch, manipulates the ball away from people. You could see that straight away, without a doubt. I never had any worries about him. I was impressed. I can’t wait to see him with a full pre-season under his belt.”
By that point, Kouhyar may well have a Wembley appearance, an FA Trophy medal, and a full international break.
The 23-year-old - who was born in Afghanistan but was brought to the UK by his family as a child to escape conflict - already has six international caps, and manager Anoush Dastgir had stayed in touch with him over the last while. Afghanistan are set to play Bangladesh, Oman and India in World Cup qualifiers in Dubai at the start of June.
“The manager kept in touch with me, I showed him some clips with Hereford. He said ‘if you’ve still got it, feel fit, you’ll get the call-up, and then we’ll go from there’. He gave me a chance as well but just said to make sure I’m fit!”
He is certainly ready. Kouhyar is now committing everything to being a professional footballer again.
Hassan, who set up BE, feels the midfielder’s story is an example to follow.
"Given Maz was at such a low point at the prospect his football career might have been over when we first met him, we could not be prouder to have not only helped him back into the game, with his first big match back at Wembley, but also to be back in the Afghanistan squad.
"It's a great achievement, things are slowly improving, and we are talking to the FA and a few clubs from the Premier League Football down to League Two about how we can help increase representation of under-represented communities on and off the pitch.
"But we cannot do this alone. It must be a concerted effort by the whole of football to increase representation in the game - and we'd love to hear from anyone who wants to work with us to improve the situation.”
Kouhyar is keen to point out he was initially inspired to speak out by the top professionals taking the knee, citing its importance. He now offers an inspiring, and uplifting, story of his own.
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