Why Zidane Iqbal’s Manchester United debut could be the inspiration south Asian footballers need

Exclusive: Kash Siddiqi, who heads Football for Peace promoting the cause of south Asian footballers, believes too many talented players are slipping through the net simply because of their heritage

Richard Edwards
Saturday 25 December 2021 17:58 GMT
Zidane Iqbal speaks to the media after his debut
Zidane Iqbal speaks to the media after his debut (Getty)

The Azeem Rafiq case shouldn’t only provide a wake-up call for cricket, because football clearly has lessons to learn too.

That’s the view of Kash Siddiqi, the former Arsenal trainee who is now best known as the head of Football for Peace, an organisation that uses the sport as a vehicle for promoting inclusion and opportunities for footballers from the south Asian community.

In a month that has seen Zidane Iqbal become the first south Asian player to run out for Manchester Unitedthe 18-year-old made his debut after coming off the bench in the club’s Champions League tie against Young Boys at Old Trafford – progress is being made.

But Siddiqi argues that the racism experienced by Rafiq at Yorkshire doubtless mirrors the experience of many young footballers from the Asian community, and should provide the impetus for clubs up and down the country to take a long, hard look at the way they bring through talent from an almost completely untapped source.

“The bar for south Asian football is very high in this country,” he says. “You almost have to be a Ronaldo or a Messi to break through.

“I think the Azeem Rafiq case puts the football clubs on the back foot. There are a lot of stories floating around. Are there a lot of Azeem Rafiq’s in the world of football whose stories we haven’t heard? A lot. There’s an awful lot. The clubs have to do more. There is some amazing work being done by some clubs but is it enough? I don’t think so.

“There is very little support out there for south Asian footballers. I think Azeem has been an absolute inspiration – he has cleared the way for a lot of others to have a lot more confidence to come forward. And I’m not just talking about sportsmen and women from the Asian community, I’m talking about people being more willing to come out and talk about discrimination in every walk of life.”

The tiny number of south Asian footballers to have come through to play professionally remains a stain on the English game.

Despite making up 7 per cent of the UK population, just 11 British south Asians have gone on to play football professionally. A look through line-ups and squad lists throughout the Premier League and Football League suggests that figure is unlikely to rise considerably in the near future. Which could make the breakthrough made by Iqbal at Old Trafford all the more significant.

Ralf Rangnick talks to Zidane Iqbal and Charlie Savage before bringing them on against Young Boys (Reuters)

Already a regular in his age group for Iraq, Iqbal’s brief appearance in United’s final Champions League group tie could prove a seminal moment in the bid to ensure that another generation of British south Asian talent isn’t squandered.

“The most important thing about Zidane Iqbal’s emergence is that it’s really highlighting role models,” says Siddiqi, who recently partnered with Mesut Ozil in a Bradford-based project to encourage more Asian footballers to pursue a career in professional football.

“The more Zidane Iqbal’s we see, the more footballers from the south Asian community will start to believe that it’s possible. To play for Manchester United in the Champions League is about as high profile as it gets. It’s a fantastic opportunity to really demonstrate to young British Asians just what is possible.

“He’s clearly onto a good thing and is clearly a very, very good footballer.”

Just how many can follow in his footsteps remains to be seen, although the work being done by Siddiqi in Bradford will, he hopes, provide the kind of support network that has so far been sorely missing.

“When a child goes for a trial then they’re lucky to get a week, usually it’s just a couple of days,” says Siddiqi. “Just from a mental, as well as a physical, perspective, a lot of them just aren’t ready for that experience.

“We’re trying to provide a net for them to learn from that, come back and try again, maybe in six months’ time. But if a player hasn’t got that kind of support, then they’re just going to drop out of football.

“There are huge numbers of south Asians playing grassroots football, they’re just not taking the next step or being given the opportunity to do so.”

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