South Asians in Football: Norway's Ghayas Zahid on becoming a cult hero after Nations League heroics

Ghayas Zahid answered Norway's SOS call and made a 17-hour dash from Nicosia to Oslo before flying to Vienna; Zahid ended up scoring on his competitive international debut in the Nations League game against Austria, becoming the first player of South Asian origin ever to score for Norway

Norway's forward Veton Berisha (C) Norway's midfielder Ghayas Zahid (R) and Norway's forward Jorgen Strand Larsen (L) celebrates scoring the opening goal vie for the ball during the UEFA Nations League football match Austria v Norway on November 18, 2020 in Vienna
Image: Ghayas Zahid embraces Veton Berisha after scoring historic goal for Norway

It was a competitive international debut that may never have happened but Ghayas Zahid seized his chance at making history, etching his name into Norwegian folklore in the process.

Norwegian authorities had banned the national team from travelling to their penultimate Nations League game in Romania last month, ordering the entire squad and staff to quarantine for 10 days after defender Omar Elabdellaoui returned a positive Covid-19 test.

To avoid forfeiting their final match in Austria three days later, Norwegian football authorities handed the reins to U21 boss Leif Gunnar Smerud - he scrambled together 18 players from across Europe, who dashed to Oslo for Covid-19 testing before flying to Vienna for the game.

Norway's midfielder Ghayas Zahid (R) and Austria's midfielder Xaver Schlager (C) vie for the ball during the UEFA Nations League football match Austria v Norway on November 18, 2020 in Vienna
Image: Ghayas Zahid ghosts past Austria and Bayern Munich midfielder David Alaba

APOEL Nicosia midfielder Zahid was among those who answered his country's emergency call, before taking to the pitch and becoming an even bigger hero as he gave Norway's unlikely lads a second-half lead in Vienna.

"The reaction [from the Norwegian public] was amazing even before we played the game," Zahid told Sky Sports News.

"You could see the interest was unbelievable. And then when you play the game and you see the reaction after and you find out that in the Nations League this year this was the game with the most viewers so you can see the interest in this game.

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"After the game I think everybody had a lot of interest from the media and you could really see that people really appreciated the effort we put in."

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Zahid: It was special

Ghayas Zahid of Norway during training before Iceland v Norway on May 31, 2018 in Keflavik, Iceland 1:48
Norway international Ghayas Zahid hopes his goalscoring heroics can inspire South Asian heritage players from across the world to push on and make it at the highest level

Adrian Grbic equalised deep into injury-time to deny Norway the most unlikely of victories, but Norway's players had already cemented their hero status - none more so than Zahid, who became the first player of South Asian origin to score for his country.

"I've known for a long time [that no South Asian had netted for Norway at senior international level]," said Ghayas, whose only previous international appearance was as a 90th-minute substitute in a 2018 friendly against Panama.

"They didn't win the match, but they have done something equally important: they won our hearts. On 18 November 2020, heroes were born in Vienna."
Norway's biggest newspaper Aftenposten

"Since we were kids, we knew there have not been a lot of players from my origin, from Pakistan, who have come through in Norway, and played at the highest level in Norway. There are some of us, we are not many - so you know that, you have that in your head.

Real Madrid's defender from Brazil Marcelo (L) vies with APOEL Nicosia's aforward from Norway Ghayas Zahid during the UEFA Champions League football match Real Madrid CF vs APOEL FC at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid on September 13, 2017.
Image: APOEL's Ghayas Zahid lays the ball off ahead of Real Madrid's Marcelo in a Champions League game at the Bernabeu

"Also when I got my move out of Norway, I also started to understand that I have possibilities to do some things that very few people from my origin have done, like when I played in the Champions League or on the national team now.

"I knew when I was going into those games that there are not a lot of people from my origin that have done that before and. That makes it [the goal] a little bit special."

Former football player Emile Heskey attends the Premier League Asia Trophy Skills Session at Macpherson Stadium on July 18, 2017 in Hong Kong, Hong Kong 1:15
Former striker Emile Heskey talks about the love of football among the South Asian community in his hometown Leicester, and how players like Hamza Choudhury can inspire the next generation

Zahid eyes big South Asian breakthrough

Sky Sports is championing greater visibility of South Asians in the game, and Zahid - who is the first player of Pakistani heritage ever to play in the Champions League - is keen to see more players from South Asian backgrounds make the breakthrough at the top level.

"I would really love that there would be more players from my origin that come through," he said.

Michael Chopra 1:58
Former Premier League striker Michael Chopra says he is surprised he has not been asked by football authorities to help inspire the next generation of South Asian footballers

"I know there is a lot of talent - also in British football - there is a lot of talent from [players whose families come from] Pakistan and India. Some of them get through, some of them don't.

"It's a little bit similar in Norway. I played with a lot of people from my origin, for example, who haven't made it to the top level in Norway and have the talent, but maybe can't get there.

There are one or two [top-class South Asian heritage footballers] in Norway, and I hope in the future even more will come through."

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