Many professional footballers attend the odd community activity to promote the game at the grass-roots level, but none have worked harder to promote Asian football than 29 year-old Zesh Rehman.
Since starting up in 2010, Rehman’s foundation has had full support from not only the Premier League but football clubs around the country, giving local communities that support Asian culture the incentive and belief to make it.
“We have a project with the Premier League, in conjunction with Queens Park Rangers and Chelsea, designed to encourage more minority and Asian cultures to get into the game,” says Rehman, “and we had a health-related project with Liverpool for who Steven Gerrard is the ambassador.”
What makes his efforts to promote British-Asian football and his success in his professional career even more astounding is his answer to the question of whether he had something like his foundation while he was growing up.
“There was no one for me to look up to and associate with in terms of my cultural background, so it was very much a case of trial and error,” he says. “There were a lot of rejections along the way, but these make you stronger and more adaptable when dealing with things in the future.”
Rehman’s career took off like no other Premier League footballer before him due to being the first British-Asian footballer in the league. But he is very humble when speaking about it.
“It was big news as no other British-Asian players had made into any level of the British games and to play in the Premier League was ground-breaking and pioneering, something which I look back on and am proud of,” he declares. “But ultimately I want to use that to make a difference and help others to follow in my footsteps.”
Football has a wonderful way of bringing people together as cultures are put to one side when a round ball is put between them for a kick-around. But although Asian football still hasn’t really kicked off as much since Rehman first made his appearance for Fulham, at the very least countries such as Japan and Korea have made that first step.
Players like Shinji Kagawa, Park Ji-Sung and Maya Yoshida are regular starters for their respective clubs and are huge role models for players of Asian origin looking up to players in the Premier League.
Kagawa will, in fact, be playing against Rehman’s current side, Kitchee, a Hong-Kong based team, with an expected full house on July 29th, to which Rehman said “he will probably get a better reception than most.”
While it’s no surprise that these players are playing in the highest leagues with Japan and Korea both being regulars in World Cups, the Kitchee centre-back feels South-East Asia will soon be following in their footsteps.
“In terms of other regions, they are growing rapidly,” Rehman says. “I played in Thailand and every year the crowds are getting bigger and the professionalism is improving. Asia’s booming already, but also growing more and more. I think within the next decade we’re going to have players from the Middle East and South-East Asia joining the Japanese and Korean players in the Premier League. When Qatar holds the World Cup in nine years time I think the spotlight will be on Asia.”
We’ve seen numerous countries dominate team rosters in the Premier League, although they have been mostly from throughout Europe, although South America is currently seeing the latest export of players arrive.
Asia is the biggest nut to crack outside of those, but waiting in the wings are dedicated players that have had set-ups like the Zesh Rehman foundation to push them and help them believe in their own ability.
To get involved with Zesh Rehman’s Foundation: http://www.zeshrehmanfoundation.org