Building a Foundation
Before pursuing a career in Thailand, Hong Kong and Malaysia, Zesh Rehman is perhaps best remembered as a defender for Fulham, QPR and Bradford. Now the 30-year-old is devoting much of his energy to the Zesh Rehman Foundation. Adam Bate caught up with him to find out more...
By Adam Bate - Follow @GhostGoal
Last Updated: 23/01/14 10:57am
As the first British-Asian to play in the Premier League, it's perhaps understandable that former Fulham defender Zesh Rehman should become something of a symbolic figure in football. However, it takes a certain type of person to carry that mantle with the passion and commitment that the Birmingham-born Pakistan International captain has displayed in launching the Zesh Rehman Foundation.
Launched in 2010, the not-for-profit organisation is devoted to social inclusion in football and has grown rapidly since then, now enjoying the support of the Premier League and the Professional Footballers' Association as well as various top-flight clubs in the country's capital. Despite now playing his football in Malaysia, with the help of his brother Riz, Rehman retains big ambitions for the future of his Foundation.
"I started the Foundation because I was being bombarded by young people and parents who wanted their children to be footballers or just become involved in football," Rehman tells Sky Sports. "Of course, not everyone is going to become a football player but within the game there are hundreds of jobs and I wanted to raise awareness. So the aim of the Foundation is to encourage children and young people from all backgrounds and ethnicities to aspire to enter the football industry."
Although Rehman might be seen as an inspiration for Asian youngsters in Britain, he is keen to make clear that inclusion for all is the key. "There was perhaps a lack of opportunity for minority groups such as British-Asian," he adds. "But I must stress that the Foundation is for everybody, not just for Asians. Naturally, there are British-Asians who will feel more inclined to join because of my background but we engage young people from all parts of the community and try to offer something for everyone.
"Our main flagship project, called Sidelined-2-Sidelines is funded by the Premier League and the PFA and currently delivered in association with Chelsea and QPR. The project is working with 50 participants and aims to address the imbalance in the number of British-Asian coaches in football by providing access to coaching qualifications, opportunities to learn from the country's best coach educators.
"These guys get their qualifications and improve their self-esteem. Hopefully they are staying off the street and out of trouble so it's a win-win for everybody. We have got lads who six months ago were just loitering around the streets of Croydon and getting into gangs. They felt working within the professional game was impossible. Now they have turned their lives around. These coaches have become role models within their own communities and in doing so they are inspiring those around them. That's the whole point."
Rehman's enthusiasm is infectious and it's a testament to the enduring power of football that this work has captured the attention of so many in disenfranchised communities. "Football is the perfect vehicle to inspire change and encourage people to do more and become more," he explains. "It's loved by everybody across the globe and it doesn't matter about your height or weight, your gender, background or disability. There is something there for everybody to get involved.
"Hopefully we can make a difference to people's lives and empower them to fulfil their potential. Not everybody has to end up working within the professional game and we do have coaches setting up new grassroots teams to encourage children and adults to take up the game. We've had coaches who started as volunteers and are now either working full-time or gone back into education. That's a success. That's why I'm delighted the major bodies within the game are supporting our work because it's allowing us to work with more disadvantaged young people as part of a bigger picture to grow the game."
The involvement of the Premier League and PFA has helped facilitate the potential for further development and a proposed link-up with other Premier League clubs presents the opportunity of expansion from London into the rest of the country. Typically, Rehman is looking not just to the provinces but beyond these shores and a possible tie-in with the continent where he has his roots.
"Our flagship project is currently in the London region but this year we are looking to do like-minded work in the Midlands and up in the North with the leading clubs," he says. "Eventually, the ambition is to do some exchange programmes between the UK and Asia." Given the drive that has taken the project this far, you're left with a sense that the Zesh Rehman Foundation will only go from strength to strength.