Shahrukh Sohail, Senior Correspondent, Islamabad.
The Former Fulham defender spoke exclusively to FootballPakistan.com, casting light on his career in England, his time with the Pakistan National Team and what lay ahead for him in the not-so-distant future.
As the only Pakistani-origin player to have ever plyed his trade in the English Premier League, the hype surrounding Zesh Rehman has been truly deserved.
Starting his apprenticeship at Craven Cottage, the 28-year-old made his way up the pecking order and finally made his debut against Liverpool at Anfield, causing a major stir in the Asian community.
If something was lacking during his time in England, it was undoubtedly trophies, something which he finally got his hands on after signing for Hong Kong giants Kitchee SC.
“It was a great feeling to win the treble in Hong Kong. As a player you want to win things so when your career is over you can be proud of it. Kitchee play an excellent passing game under the guidance of our Spanish coach and I’m really enjoying life in East Asia right now,” said a thoroughly content Rehman.
“Asia has many strong leagues and brilliant passionate crowds. In terms of support and finance some clubs are on par with Premiership teams. The style of football is different, as the hot climate does not allow for an intense speed to the game and the style of player is different. The players are very skilful and technical than some Leagues of Europe. The fact we are seeing more players go from Asia to Europe is an indicator that Asia is the future.”
Commenting on his decision to remain in Eastern part of the world when there were clubs clamouring for his signatures back in the West, the ex-QPR man claimed that his priority was always game time, which he placed ahead of lucrative contracts.
“I had offers from Europe, Australia and other parts of Asia. I enjoyed 10 years, 200+ games and playing in all four leagues in the UK, so I wanted to remain in Asia because the region is fanatical about the game. As well as the football side I feel I have developed as a person, learned new cultures, learnt a new language and tested myself from out of my comfort zone. I would certainly recommend it to other players,” continued the talented stopper.
“I always wanted to play so even when I have an assured contract and financial security, I never settled for that and wanted to get game time. I know several players that stayed for the money and then did not get another contract at any level. Playing at different levels of the football pyramid is a great learning curve as the level is different so hopefully I can use that experience to pass on to the next generation.”
Zesh’s time in English game will fondly be remembered as his Golden Days, but his last hurray in League 2 ended on a sour note, as he parted ways with Bradford City FC despite being the captain.
Now the Pakistani International cast some light on the matter, revealing that he had some disagreements with the club and in the end chose to depart for greener pastures elsewhere after his suggestions were overlooked.
“I loved my time as Club captain at Bradford, I helped the club get more Asian fans through the gates, financial sponsors from the local business’s as well becoming a key member of the team for the two years I was there. Sometimes in football players and managers do not see eye to eye and disagree with certain decisions. I voiced my opinions and that’s that! In the end I left the club on good terms and am still in contact Witt, the chairman.”
Due to his heritage, Rehman was eligible for Pakistan as well as England. And although he chose to play for the Three Lions at junior levels, the Green Shirts were the ones with whom he made his mark on the International stage in the 2005 SAFF Cup.
However, due to hectic scheduling and the distance between South Asia and Europe, the former Blackpool often missed out on matches, but insisted that he would try to make up for it now that he was close by in Hong Kong.
“Now I’m in Asia, so I intend to play more for Pakistan for sure. It’s always an honour to play for your Country. “
Although the Pakistan Team has had some sensational results in the past few years, they haven’t really been able to qualify for a major tournament, something which Zesh claims will only be possible if they focus on the youth and improve the structure.
“Unless Pakistan starts to send the coaches and players overseas to get a better football education there will not be much progress. There needs to be an allocation for foreign players in the League to raise the level of the local player. Other South Asian Countries like India, Bangladesh, Maldives and even Nepal have imported players. The infrastructure also needs to be improved and the key people need to invest in the facilities and youth. It will take maybe two decades to reach a world Cup, Pakistan need to mirror places like Japan that started from the grassroots,” he reiterated.
With the professional game one of the most difficult careers to succeed in, it’s no wonder that many amateurs never make it to the top. However, Zesh has pledged his desire to help youngsters groom themselves and follow his example, also adding that he would be willing to help them if they contacted him through proper channels.
“My advice to any aspiring footballer regardless of background would be to work hard every day, make sacrifices, be prepared for setbacks, surround yourself with positive people and never give up on your dream. Failure is part of the scenery on the way to success so they must learn to become mentally strong enough to cope with it. If anyone contacts me via contact section of my website (www.zeshrehman.com), I will do my best to guide and advise them.”
Lastly, he spoke about what the future held for him and claimed that he would be delighted to work as a coach, perhaps even with the Pakistan National Team.
“My future ambitions are to play in as many different countries as possible and then get into management. I would love to manage the Pakistan national team and one day gets to a World Cup,” said Rehman before signing off.
While he has achieved notable success at Kitchee, Zesh longs for similar results with the Green Kickers and who knows with him willing and available for National Team duty, the side may finally get a berth in a major competition.