Zesh Rehman holds a unique place in English football as the first British-born player of Asian descent to feature in the English Premier League. The powerful central defender most notably featured for Fulham, as well as a host of other English clubs, and has recently joined Malaysia’s Pahang after spells in Thailand and Hong Kong.
The Pakistan international is passionately involved in his own personal foundation, which aims to assist British Asians in disadvantaged communities to overcome cultural and religious barriers through football. Rehman, who is passionate about social justice issues, spoke with FIFA.com to discuss his own experiences with racism and discrimination, and what can be done to combat the problem.
FIFA.com: Have you had first-hand experience of racism in your football career on or off the field?
Zesh Rehman: I experienced a fair bit of racism in my young days playing grassroots football in England between the ages of 9 to 13. Being subjected to racial abuse on and off the pitch can be very off-putting and daunting at a young age but my parents always taught me to be thick-skinned. My brother Riz and I were the only Asian lads in the whole of our Sunday League in Surrey during the early 1990s so we had it tough. As you get older you begin to realise that racism stems from ignorance and a lack of education.
How did any first-hand experiences affect you?
The experiences of racism made me realise that my journey in the game was going to be filled with more than the usual barriers, and that I needed to become focused and mentally strong to deal with it and keep on the relentless pursuit to becoming a professional. For any young player, doubts as to whether they have the capacity to succeed at the highest level or not are usually focused on their desire to succeed or simply their ability, but for me it was directed more at my cultural heritage. Coaches would always tell me to take up cricket instead of football as it was a recurring theme that Asians don’t play football, that our culture and diet is not suited to the demands of the game. But it was a passion of mine from a young age and something that I really wanted to do. I took positives out of it and wanted to set a precedent for other Asian youngsters like myself and show that becoming a professional can be achieved and is realistic.
You can either crumble, cave in and accept the comments or you can roll your sleeves up and rise above it by doing your talking on the pitch. Of course when you are a young player it’s never easy but that’s when it’s even more important to have positive role models surrounding you in terms of coaches and teachers so that you can remain focused.
What advice would you give young players who experience racism and how should they react?
My advice would be to use it as motivational fuel to inspire yourself to perform better and win over the heart and minds of the people dishing it out, so they realise that they cannot break you and you will keep turning up and performing regardless. I have faced the dilemma many times in my career when I felt things were going against me, but I never used my race or cultural beliefs as an excuse so I would encourage others to adopt the same stance. Young players need to learn not to worry about things that are out of their control. However, if they do experience racism it is important they report it using the correct reporting procedures at their clubs.
I have faced the dilemma many times in my career when I felt things were going against me, but I never used my race or cultural beliefs as an excuse.
You're the first player of Pakistani heritage to have played in the Premier League. Can you foresee a time when the English game is truly multicultural?
The fact that I remain the only Pakistani player to have played in the English Premier League means there is a lot of hard work to be done in terms of changing the mindset of the next generation of young Asian talent, as well as educating the decision makers. I believe the day will come when the numbers increase, it's a challenge and one that inspires me to work even harder so the future kids can follow in my footsteps and believe it’s realistic to carve out a career for themselves both in the UK and overseas. There are a couple of young players at professional clubs who have a chance of coming through and hopefully these players can go on and inspire even more children from Asian backgrounds to play the game. Having one superstar at the top will not change a generation – we need players breaking through at all levels of the game including at non-league level.
What can football do to combat the problem?
For me football has possibly done more to combat racism than other institutions across society. Football has become a global game and there are high-profile players in every corner of the world who are now perfectly placed to act as role models to spread anti-racism messages. In England, there are anti-racism groups such as Kick It Out, formerly known as ‘Let’s Kick Racism Out of Football’, and Show Racism the Red Card, who have worked tirelessly to raise awareness across the game and are now using current and former professional players as ambassadors to showcase their work. The Professional Footballers' Association are also taking the lead in delivering diversity and equality workshops to all senior players in England - something which should be replicated in other leagues across Europe and Asia.
With anything, I believe we need to ensure more education is targeted to those coming into the game at the grassroots as they are the future players, coaches, administrators of the game and they need to be made aware of the negative effects racist and discriminatory language can have. Football is a reflection of society so we definitely need to have a bottom-up approach starting with grassroots football clubs.
Football has the power to unite people from all backgrounds and challenge inequalities of every kind.
What other areas of discrimination can football help to tackle?
Football has the power to unite people from all backgrounds and challenge inequalities of every kind. Homophobia and anti-Semitism are becoming more prominent and it is vital discussions are had around how these can be addressed. It’s important to keep the debate alive on these topics to see how we can all work towards a game free of discrimination. Giving people a better understanding of certain myths which exist around players of faith have become highlighted in more recent times and this is something my foundation has been looking to take a lead on.
Does football’s global appeal mean it is uniquely placed to tackle the issue of discrimination?
Absolutely. Football is such a major factor in so many people's lives. Having played professional football in England, Thailand, Hong Kong and competitive games all over the world with Pakistan, I have witnessed first-hand different nationalities working together to achieve a common goal. We cannot underestimate the power of the game to make positive changes in our society but we need to make sure that everyone joins forces for the same common goal. Teams across the world are made up of players from a number different cultures and backgrounds who all mix together on a daily basis. The players can play an important role in changing attitudes on the terraces by uniting with team-mates to celebrate each other’s differences rather than seeing them as a barrier.
Can you tell us about the Zesh Rehman Foundation (ZRF), and how it is helping young footballers in difficult circumstances?
The ZRF was founded in 2010 and is now working hard to help change perceptions and myths surrounding British Asians in football by providing more opportunities in disadvantaged communities - combating cultural and religious barriers associated with communities that have a high number of Asians. The ZRF works at the grassroots level in these communities to help aspiring footballers and coaches develop their skills through coaching clinics, soccer schools and personal development courses. As a British-born player with Pakistani heritage, I am aware of the challenges and perceptions faced by young people from minority communities on a daily basis, and how that can have a negative impact on both their mindset and their actions.
The Asian communities in the UK are still under-represented as players, coaches, administrators, within the media and even at grounds as supporters and the ZRF has been set up to provide pathways into the game. We are currently delivering a unique programme called ‘Sidelined-2-Sidelines’ which is designed to increase the number of British Asian coaches who can act as role models and be equipped to work within the professional game. We are also working closely with the governing bodies and clubs to deliver our ‘Muslim Awareness’ workshop which creates an awareness for coaches, managers and club staff on how to better engage with and understand the needs of players from Muslim backgrounds.