Zesh Rehman tells SRtRC about playing football in Thailand, Hong Kong and Malaysia
"Sport is one thing, in particular football, that can bring people together and create harmony and celebrate each others differences, as opposed to being something we should feel threatened by, or scared of.”
Show Racism the Red Card had the opportunity to catch up with professional footballer, Honrary Patron and Hall of Fame member of the campaign, Zesh Rehman.
Zesh was one of the first British Asian players to break through in professional football, playing in all four divisions in England with clubs including Fulham, Brighton & Hove Albion, QPR, Bradford City and Blackpool. For the last four years he has been playing his club football in Thailand, Hong Kong and Malaysia.
Zesh established the Zesh Rehman Foundation in 2010, which aims to use sport for social change, offers pathways into training and coaching and help get people involved in sport.
Hi Zesh, how are you?
“Good thank you!”
Last time we talked you were playing for Muangthong FC in Thailand. Since then you have played for Kitchee in Hong Kong, winning a domestic treble in your first season and now play for Pahang in Malaysia. How have you enjoyed the last three years?
“The past few years have been amazing. In terms of football, I’ve had a lot of success, I’ve won six trophies in the last 2 ½ years. But away from that, culturally it’s been a very, very good experience, travelling and living in Thailand and then parts of Hong Kong, East Asia and now in Malaysia, it’s been a very good eye opener.
“Lots of different people, different cultures and it just broadens your horizons as a person and gives a bigger picture away from football that you can learn a lot about yourself and where you are in the world. It’s been very good so far.”
In the UK immigration is often talked about in very negative terms, have you experienced any hostility in any of the countries you’ve lived in as an economic migrant?
“None at all to be honest with you. I play with players from Africa, South America, Europe, obviously different parts of Asia and in the dressing room you know we’ve got a good mixture of different religions, different cultures and everybody gets on.
“I think that’s the beauty of football, I’ve always believed that it has the power to genuinely unite people from all different backgrounds, like we’ve just seen with the recent World Cup. I have a feeling it helped people to realise that sport is one thing, in particular football, that can bring people together and create harmony and celebrate each others differences, as opposed to being something we should feel threatened by, or scared of.”
I think often people’s personal experiences of different cultures are a really good way of getting to know more about different places and football is a model that other areas of society could learn from.
“Definitely, like I said it’s the perfect example of how to unite people. It’s such a global game and it’s often appreciated by everybody – different races, genders, countries – it’s amazing.”
Is racism evident in society or sport in Hong Kong or Malaysia?
“No, I’ve not experienced any of that in my time in Asia. You know in each country in Asia they have an allocation of foreign players to come in and in all my experiences of each of the Countries I’ve played in and been to for competitive games, there’s not been a single incident.
“So perhaps it’s something that the game in Europe could maybe look at and find out why and how the atmosphere and environment here is more relaxed, more friendly. It’s not to say it is any less competitive, because it still is very competitive, but you know I’ve not experienced any and long may that continue!”
What’s the latest with the Zesh Rehman Foundation?
“Since we last spoke the Foundation’s been making steady progress and it’s come on leaps and bounds. I’ve always been conscious not to do too much too soon, because of the resources and our location.
“At the moment we’ve got a project with the Premier League which is called Sideline to Sideline and basically it encourages BME communities and anybody in fact, to get involved in the game. We collaborate with the PFA, working with Chelsea, Queens Park Rangers to challenge prejudice. And to be fair now we’ve had lots of professionals; people that come off the streets, that have become qualified coaches and gone on to work in Community Departments at Fulham, Chelsea, Queens Park Rangers, Crystal Palace.
“So this is a major flagship project, but obviously on the side we’re still offering mentoring and advice, support, healthy living, how to get involved with the sport and trying to do something positive with their lives. So far, touch wood, it’s gone well and long may it continue.”
As you know SRtRC work a lot with Community Trusts and Foundations in our work, they do such excellent work with young people, it’s a really good way to get people involved in sport.
“Football is such a powerful vehicle, the players must realise, I mean I had a lot of people look up to me, thousands of people not just domestically, but also internationally.
“So there’s an opportunity to use that in a positive way and if we can use that to give a little bit back to the people that aspire to follow in your footsteps then for me it’s not even a thinking matter you know, it’s something that I’ll happily do and enjoy seeing the benefits and rewards it brings to these young kids and if it raises the awareness and education levels of people perhaps who are a little bit closed minded in terms of race and cultural differences.”
Do you think you may mirror the success of the Foundation by setting it up in Malaysia, Hong Kong or Thailand?
“Yeah that’s on the agenda for later down the line. Obviously, because of where I am I’ve made a lot of contacts here with different organisations and there’s a lot of scope for the work out here also. For kids to get involved in the game, to be part of something, so perhaps in the next two to three years, or the next time I speak to you there will be something set up in South-East Asia or East Asia.”
Where do you keep your SRtRC Hall of Fame award?
“That’s a good question actually, I’ve just been back to the UK, a week or so ago and I dug it out. It’s been in my loft, because my house has had a bit of refurbishment, so it’s all safe and sound.
“It’s something I’m very proud of and privileged to have received from Show Racism the Red Card. It’s a fantastic organisation, doing amazing work for many years throughout the UK and it’s probably one of the most recognised in that area, so I’m very proud of it.”
What are your plans for the season ahead? You’re obviously playing for Pahang, do you have plans eventually to return to the UK?
“Just at the moment here everything stops for Ramadan. So we train 10pm at night, the League and FA Cup is finished and we’re preparing now for the Malaysia cup which starts next month. But even this month has been a good experience in terms of how Ramadan is approached during the football season.
“Next season and after that, to the UK? You never know in football. Never close any doors, I’m very open minded, but in truth I’m really enjoying the adventure in Asia. I’ve been here four years, moving to different clubs and countries is a wonderful football experience, but also a life experience. Possibly I’ll remain in Malaysia, but I’m open minded to anything.”
Why do you think it is that more British players don’t go to play overseas?
“Firstly I don’t think they’re quite aware of what’s on the other side so to speak. There’s so many leagues around the world, established leagues with good fan bases, good salaries, good lifestyles, but they don’t really have the opportunity to sample it.
“I have tried to help fellow professionals, help a few of them over to Asia, people like Bas Savage, who was at Brighton before, Pablo Cou̴ñago more recently George Boateng. They’re all over in Asia now and really enjoying it. So I’m sure in the near future there will be more following suit, because the game and economy in the UK and Europe in particular is not as dominant as it once was.”
Visit the Zesh Rehman Foundation website for more information about it's work.