PFA AIMS programme looking to create long-term pathway for South Asian players

Professional Footballers’ Association Asian Inclusion Mentoring Scheme (AIMS) is bringing together British South Asian players across the nation in an attempt to boost activity on the professional stage.

The AIMS programme has been set up by the PFA to give support to Asian footballers at all levels of the professional game, involving meetings and workshops where scholars and academy players can connect with senior Asian players.

The idea for the scheme came back in 2018 but picked up a head of steam in 2020 during the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic with the idea of building structured support networks for professionals at all levels.

The PFA are the only stakeholder to employ an inclusion executive to deliver on the work and to be the conduit between players, their families and clubs.

Riz Rehman, player inclusion executive for the PFA, told the PA news agency: “It’s all a part of a longer-term strategy that is in working motion. There has been real buy-in from all the clubs who see the added value of my work and the AIMS programme which ultimately is in place to support their players’ welfare, learning and progression.

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“Clubs just want the best talent, but what we do know is at the moment they are recruiting from certain teams, groups and all I’m trying to do is widen that net a little bit and introducing them to different grassroots clubs and communities which would probably be missed, so it’s about creating opportunities.

“We have hosted emerging talent ID days at Arsenal, Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers and Cardiff City over the last six weeks, providing opportunities for 320 players, with 59 players being invited back and involved in further actions within the academy system.

“We are making an impact. Clubs have commented that without doing these days, they would not have seen that hidden talent pool. It’s a win-win all round.”

Data from the PFA shows there are currently only 16 British South Asian players active in the English professional football pyramid from 3,500 players across the Premier League down to League Two, equating to just 0.45 per cent representation.

The PFA’s AIMS programme has aspirations of boosting participation figures to six per cent but there are only 103 South Asian scholars from 11,300 players.

The PFA have put together a five-year strategy to help increase representation and several players who have worked with AIMS have broken through, including Zidane Iqbal, who signed a professional contract at Manchester United and was the first British South Asian to represent the club at a senior level.

Ex-Wales, Aston Villa and Middlesbrough defender Neil Taylor is one of the mentors who regularly attends training sessions and helps offer one-to-one support and advice to those younger than him.

The 33-year-old said: “It’s been great, the scheme has been growing over the last two or three years that we have been doing it so I think it’s only going to get bigger and better.

“It’s ideal for us all to train together and people in your situation to get together, have a chat and train.”

Asked if something like AIMS would have helped Taylor when he was coming into the professional scene, he added: “It would have only helped me.

“I was playing football all year round anyway, doesn’t matter who it was with, I just loved playing and I’m sure these lads are the same – but what the PFA are trying to do is grow the numbers and make sure everyone knows about the scheme.

“I think things like this can only be good but we might not see the benefit of things like this for another 10 or 15 years.

“I have a pro licence now coaching-wise, I enjoy doing that side of it and helping young lads as much as I can and that’s what you should do when you get a bit older so they can pick up little things that can make a big difference.

Other mentors for the scheme include former Wolves and Stoke defender Danny Batth, Zesh Rehman, Otis Khan, Anwar Uddin and Port Vale defender Malvind Benning, who helped earn them promotion with a goal at Wembley in May.

Research from a leading academic on the subject, Dan Kilvington, senior lecturer in media and cultural Studies at Leeds Beckett University, shows there is less access to affiliated playing spaces and opportunities in predominantly British South Asian areas, which is something the PFA have addressed in combating the issue.

Kilvington said: “A knock-on effect is that there are fewer opportunities to play the game, which means you’re less likely to be spotted by a scout.

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“Because there are so few British South Asian players at elite level, this has helped maintain stereotypes relating to British South Asian ballers. When scouts and coaches do observe British South Asian players, they are often racialised as being culturally or physically at odds with the game. This therefore leads some scouts and coaches to view British South Asian players as a gamble.

“However, if stakeholders and clubs are able to acknowledge that structural inequalities help maintain this historic exclusion, and are committed to doing something about it, then we will see educational resources being developed and delivered to mitigate against these potential biases.

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