Premier League game-changer Zesh Rehman talks about overcoming challenges, taking opportunities and the importance of planning for the future in professional football.
With the World Cup in Russia now a distant memory and the elite players from across the globe returning to domestic club football it was obvious to even the most casual observer that the sport truly produces an international culture. Players and fans from every continent created a vibrant atmosphere in stadiums across the tournament and performances by the likes of Japan and Senegal highlighted the talent in some of the less obvious nations in the tournament, and provided a few shocks along the way.
In keeping with the international World Cup theme, this week we have had the pleasure of hosting one of the true game changers in English football at Tactic Connect – Zesh Rehman.
Born in Birmingham of Pakistani heritage, Zesh made history when he became the first British Asian to play in the Premier League with Fulham FC, and is the first to have played in all four divisions of professional football in England subsequently, notably with Queens Park Rangers and Bradford City. He has since played in Thailand and Malaysia and is currently in his second stint in Hong Kong. Zesh also plays for the Pakistan national football team and was has a unique insight into the life of a professional footballer and the state of the game.
A thoughtful and intelligent observer of the football industry, and a recently qualified Pro Licence coach with UEFA, we caught up with Zesh during his whistle stop tour of coaching, player workshops, Foundation work and lectures (including a presentation at Leicester De Montfort University to representatives from the Communication University of China) to get a few thoughts.
When did you know you wanted to be a pro footballer and how did you get involved with Fulham?
I wanted to become a professional footballer from the age of 8 or 9 years old, my dad took me and my brother to watch Aston Villa against Manchester City at Vila Park, we stood in the Holte End and from that moment on I knew that’s what I wanted to do because the atmosphere was amazing and we felt part of the Aston Villa football family. We were accepted on the terraces.
My dad decided to move the family from Birmingham to London in the hope of better prospects and opportunities for us (6 kids) as many of our friends in Birmingham were getting involved in gangs, drugs or violence. I was scouted by Fulham playing for my District side, Sutton, the coach at the time was a school teacher called Paul Clement who was always very supportive of me. Paul ended up having a great career as a coach at Chelsea and has since managed in the Premier league. A Fulham scout called Gary Clark was at the game, he gave my dad a card after the game with his number on inviting me for a two week trial. At this point I had already been rejected by Aston Villa and Chelsea so there was no way I was going to let this opportunity slip. I was at Fulham for the next 10 years!
In that journey to being a pro, what were the biggest challenges you faced to ‘make the grade’?
At the age of 9 I was told to forget about football by a scout because of three reasons, he told my dad blatantly that Asian kids are too small, scared of the weather and have the wrong diet. That was a fairly significant moment and arguably a life changing one. From that moment I became even more motivated and determined to prove him wrong! There were times when the racial abuse was there of course but I have always had a positive network (parents) around me that never let me dwell on that. I learned to talk with my feet. Very early on I recognised the power of football, and on those occasions it was to be accepted and to stop the abuse!
Personally as a family we lived in council homes across London for several years until we were given a permanent place. At one point we were given a hostel room for all 8 members of the family to stay in and sleep in the floor. Despite all of that my dad never allowed us to feel sorry for ourselves we just continued to find ways to deal with the situation, to keep training and studying. It was a good grounding, those early life lessons ingrained the mentality to find a way to overcome obstacles of any sort without making excuses.
Football is a global game, but following your success in England it raised a few eyebrows when you went to Asia to play. What prompted you to make that move?
Sometimes in football opportunities come at the times you least expect, I was captain of Bradford City Football Club and had no intention of leaving. One phone call on a random December evening changed the course of my life for the next 9 years. I was invited to visit Muanghthong United of the Thai Premier League, within an hour of visiting the club I followed my gut instinct and signed a contract to play for them. After that season in Thailand it’s fair to say I fell in love with the region!
Sometimes footballers are unaware of how big the global football world is and how many leagues in different continents can present opportunities for them to change direction in life whilst still doing what they love. The initial challenges were the language barrier, moving from my family in London and leaving a comfort zone of knowing the leagues here. I enjoyed the challenges of winning over new people, embracing a different culture and immersing myself into the environment to make the move smoother. The heat in the early months was unbearable, we had an Asian Cup game in Indonesia at 2pm which was horrendous, I could hardly breathe and asked to come off just after half time questioning what I had signed up for!
You have built a bit of a following in Asia, what are your personal highlights during your time there?
I have been fortunate enough to be part of teams in Thailand, Malaysia and Hong Kong who have reached finals, competed for league titles and played in the regional competitions which has led to winning 7 trophies. The most memorable was winning the Malaysia Cup in Kuala Lumpur in front of 100,000 fans!
On a personal note I have had the opportunity to learn about different cultures, learn new languages, travel all over the region and for my family it has been a wonderful experience. My children are getting the best early education of life, they are speaking several languages and growing up with an accepting and open mind about the world. I have met some very astute business people along the way and managed to create a good network of contacts.
We saw Asian teams putting in fantastic performances during the World Cup – how do you think the sport is progressing in the region?
The teams who regularly get to the World Cup such as Japan, Korea and Iran all have fantastic domestic league because they adopted a bottom to top approach, they recognised the importance of building a solid foundation 20 odd years ago, for which they are now reaping the benefits.
The weaknesses of some of the nations I would say is the hunger for instant success and therefore adopting a top to bottom approach, for instance China has huge potential but I believe bringing in high profile names is not the solution for long term success. Asian nations have financial backing, good work ethic and a wide pool of talent to choose from and for this reason I anticipate the growth of football to continue in the upcoming years. These nations would benefit from sending their best players to play in Europe. Countries in Asia are looking to the UK model to find ways to improve, the major difference is the fact the clubs in the UK/Europe have 100+ years of history which is not always the case in Asia.
Everyone asks about how the standard of Asian football compares to England – what’s your opinion and any observations on next steps as a player and coach?
It’s hard to make a direct comparison because of the quota rules, each team can play 3 or 4 foreign players in the starting line-up depending on the Country. The level of the foreign players is on a par with top leagues around the world. Some of the local players could hold their own in all four leagues here and some quite frankly would really struggle. The level of teams from China, Japan, Korea, UAE, Iran and Qatar would be no less than Championship Standard because of the level of finance involved. South East Asian leagues such as Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia etc I would say in general would probably equate to League One level.
Some Countries need to focus less on high profile stars and more on the grassroots and building a solid foundation. I would encourage other players and coaches from the UK to consider leagues in Asia because they can continue to do what they love, add value to the club there and really be appreciated. The lifestyle is very good, and the living costs are a lot less, the club’s go the extra mile to take care of the players families by providing flights, schools and cars. It is well worth being open minded to for those reasons alone.
Moving on to the international game, what is your current role with Pakistan and what hopes do you have for the country in terms of football development?
My current role is still as a player, the National Team will resume competitive football in the South Asian Cup in September after a 3 year period of no games. Cricket and Hockey will always be the number one sports in Pakistan but there is a great love for football.
Pakistan is several decades behind the other Asian Countries, there needs to be a major injection of money into grassroots development and into the coach education aspect. I think Pakistan can improve in the FIFA rankings over the next decade and qualify for an Asian Cup Campaign, a World Cup finals appearance would be the ultimate goal but realistically that could take another 50 years.
You have always been involved in philanthropy and community programmes, and now you have your own Zesh Rehman Foundation – what motivates you to get involved in community programmes?
At all the clubs I play for I always like to engage with communities, visit schools and give some time to aspiring footballers and people who just want to know more about the game. I was bombarded with letters from people asking for advice. The Foundation was set up as my way of giving something back to the game, as footballers we are in a very fortunate position, and I think that brings along with it the responsibility of being a role model and in a position to have a positive impact on people’s lives. The Foundation allows people from all backgrounds to get involved in sport, build their self-esteem, gain qualifications and interact with other cultures which is always good to see in the current climate.
You clearly plan for the future — what advice would you give young footballers in terms of planning for the end of their playing career?
My advice would be to manage your time effectively, invest in education and take a keen interest in other aspects of life. I would say it helps if you have a vision of what you want to do post playing and then put a plan in place to make it possible, have a positive support network is very important in order to remain focused. Career planning needs to be done earlier in my opinion because too often players finish playing and find it hard to engage in life because they have become very imbalanced as people due to the pressures and constraints of the football environment. Finding the right work life balance is vital. I believe workshops that teach players how to take ownership of their lives would prove to be very valuable because footballers often have all their needs catered for by others whilst they play, leading to laziness and a lack of essential life skills that impact on their future once football is over.
As Zesh heads back to Hong Kong for the new season we will continue to develop the work of the Zesh Rehman Foundation in the UK and Hong Kong, and look forward to supporting Zesh in other endeavours both in and out of the game.
Best of Luck Zesh!