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

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

Rehman, the PFA’s Player Inclusion Executive, oversees the Asian Inclusion Mentoring Scheme (AIMS) project, which aims to encourage Asian youth to assert themselves in sports.

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

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

“The goal was to really flood the country with talent and see how the interest is,” Rehman told the PA news agency.

“There is definitely hidden talent out there and the response has been very positive. Our work shows that it must be done.

“We don’t have to constantly have discussions and develop strategies. We’ve done it, we’ve done it, and we’re already seeing success stories.

“We can set a strategy and act on it, but the most important thing we have on our side is the parents.

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

United teenager Iqbal, a Mancunian with Iraqi and Pakistani roots who made his debut for the Red Devils in December’s Champions League game against Young Boys, signed a new Old Trafford contract last month.

But Sport England data shows that just 0.45 per cent of players of South Asian descent play in the top four English leagues – just 16 people out of a pool of 3,500 professionals.

However, participation rates of South Asian communities in grades three through eleven are comparable to all other ethnicities at around 30 percent, with a playing population of around six percent in those age groups.

It is evident that clubs have failed to develop this playing field and Sunday’s session in Cardiff, attended by dozens of Asian children, showed that 56 per cent of those present did not play grassroots football.

Rehman said: “We tell clubs we know Asian kids are playing organized football.

“The clubs say that Asian children go to the mosque between the ages of five and seven, which clashes with our training time.

“Mosques have leagues, they have extracurricular activities. So can we build relationships with these mosques and different faith groups and pick up talent from 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.

Academy Director David Hughes said: “Cardiff prides itself on being a multicultural city and we have looked at ways to ensure there are opportunities for all.

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

Wales v Belgium – UEFA Euro 2016 – Quarter Finals – Stade Pierre Mauroy

Former Wales defender Neil Taylor was one of the mentors of 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 roots who have mentored young players with a strong focus on their positive experiences in the game.

Rehman said: “This year we’ve had four or five players signing their first pro contracts and that wasn’t the case before.

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

“By doing that now, I hope that in five or 10 years there won’t be an AIMS program and it’s just embedded in the clubs.”

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