Riz Rehman welcomed the response to an initiative by the Professional Footballers’ Association, formerly held in Blackburn, to create support networks for Asian players in the domestic game.
Rehman, the PFA’s Head of Player Inclusion, oversees the Asian Inclusion Mentoring Scheme (AIMS) project which is designed to encourage young Asians as they try to navigate their way through the sport.
AIMS officially launched in February 2021 after running as a pilot program, and practical sessions have recently been rolled out at Arsenal, Blackburn, Aston Villa and Cardiff. The next one at Manchester United is scheduled for August.
South Asians have been under-represented in English football, with Sport England 2020-21 data showing players from these communities have struggled to reach professional level despite their attendance numbers being in line with all others ethnicities.
“The goal was to really sweep the country with talent and see what the interest looks like,” Rehman told the PA news agency.
“There are definitely hidden talents and the response has been very positive. Our work shows that it has to be done.
“We don’t need to keep having conversations and strategizing. We did it, we put it into action and we are already seeing success.
“We can strategize and act on it, but the most important thing we have on our side is the parents.
“Without the parents, we don’t have 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 descent who made his debut for the Red Devils in December’s Champions League game against Young Boys, signed a new contract with Old Trafford last month.
But data from Sport England shows just 0.45 per cent of players of South Asian descent play in England’s top four divisions – just 16 out of a pool of 3,500 professionals.
Yet South Asian community turnout rates in college years 3-11 are aligned with all other ethnicities at around 30%, with a gaming population of around 6% in those age brackets.
Clubs have clearly failed to exploit this grassroots game, and Sunday’s session in Cardiff attended by dozens of Asian children showed that 56 per cent of those in attendance do not play grassroots football. .
Rehman said: “We tell the clubs we know that Asian children are playing organized football.
“Clubs say that Asian children go to the mosque between five and seven o’clock, which is in contradiction with our training time.
“Mosques have leagues, they have extracurricular activities. So can we create relationships with these mosques and different religious groups and attract talent there? »
Cardiff, like the other clubs involved in the AIMS project, has a large Asian population on its doorstep and wants to strengthen the link between its academy and the wider community.
Academy Director David Hughes said: “Cardiff is proudly a multicultural city, and we have looked for ways to ensure there are opportunities for everyone.
“It’s a great opportunity to use football and sport as a vehicle for inclusion.”
Former Wales full-back Neil Taylor, Sunderland defender Danny Batth and Port Vale’s Mal Benning are among a group of current professionals of Asian descent who have mentored young players, emphasizing their positive experiences in the game.
Rehman said: “This year, four or five players signed their first professional contract and that didn’t happen before.
“But it takes more than 10 years to create a professional footballer and we need more numbers.
“By doing this now, hopefully there won’t be an AIMS program in five or 10 years and it will just be embedded in the clubs.”