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‘Hidden’ Asian talent gets chance to shine – PFA’s Riz Rehman

Riz Rehman, of the Professional Footballers’ Association, says there is ‘hidden talent’ in Asian communities (James Chadwick/Surrey FA Handout)
Riz Rehman, of the Professional Footballers’ Association, says there is ‘hidden talent’ in Asian communities (James Chadwick/Surrey FA Handout)

Riz Rehman has welcomed the response to a Professional Footballers’ Association initiative to create support networks for Asian players in the domestic game.

Rehman, the PFA’s player inclusion executive, oversees the Asian Inclusion Mentoring Scheme (AIMS) project which is designed to encourage Asian youngsters as they attempt to make their way in the sport.

South Asians have been under-represented in English football, with 2020-21 Sport England data showing that players from those communities have struggled to make the professional level despite their participation numbers being aligned to all other ethnicities.

AIMS was officially launched in February 2021 after running as a pilot scheme, and practical sessions have been rolled out recently at Arsenal, Blackburn, Aston Villa and Cardiff. The next one at Manchester United is planned for August.

“The aim was to really sweep the country with talent and see what the interest is like,” Rehman told the PA news agency.

“There’s definitely hidden talent out there and the response has been very positive. Our work is showing that it needs to be done.

“We don’t need to keep having conversations and putting in strategies. We’ve done that, we’ve put it into action, and we’re already seeing success stories.

“We can put a strategy down and act on it, but the most important thing we’ve got on our side is the parents.

“Without the parents we don’t get a Zidane Iqbal at Manchester United, an Arjan Raikhy at Aston Villa or a Kamran Kandola at Wolves.”

United teenager Iqbal, a Mancunian of Iraqi and Pakistani heritage who made his Red Devils debut in December’s Champions League match against Young Boys, signed a new Old Trafford deal last month.

But the Sport England data shows that only 0.45 per cent of players of South Asian heritage are playing in the top four English divisions – just 16 individuals from a pool of 3,500 professionals.

Yet participation rates from South Asian communities across academic years three to 11 are aligned to all other ethnicities at around 30 per cent, with a playing population of around six per cent in these age groups.

It is evident clubs have failed to tap into this playing base, and Sunday’s session at Cardiff that was attended by dozens of Asian children showed that 56 per cent of those present do not play grass roots football.

Rehman said: “We’re saying to the clubs we know Asian kids are playing organised football.

“The clubs are saying Asian kids are going to mosques between five and seven, which clashes with our training time.

“Mosques have leagues, they have after-school activities. So can we create relationships with those mosques and different faith groups and pick up talent there?”

Cardiff, like the other clubs involved in the AIMS project, have a large Asian population on their doorstep and are keen to strengthen the bond between their Academy and the wider community.

Head of Academy David Hughes said: “Cardiff is a proudly multicultural city, and we’ve been looking at ways to ensure that there are opportunities for everybody.

“This is an excellent opportunity to use football and sport as a vehicle for inclusion.”

Wales v Belgium – UEFA Euro 2016 – Quarter Final – Stade Pierre Mauroy
Former Wales defender Neil Taylor has been among those mentoring the new generation of Asian players in English football (Mike Egerton/PA)

Former Wales full-back Neil Taylor, Sunderland defender Danny Batth and Port Vale’s Mal Benning are among a group of current professionals with Asian heritage who have mentored young players, with the focus very much on their positive experiences in the game.

Rehman said: “This year we had four or five players signing their first professional contracts and that wasn’t happening before.

“But it takes 10-plus years to create a professional footballer and we need more numbers.

“By doing this now, I hope there is no AIMS programme in five or 10 years time and it’s just embedded in the clubs.”