Wed, Aug 01, 2007 - Page 19 News List

Pakistan looking to recruit soccer talent from Britain


Sweat drips down the Three Lions badge on Suffean Mahmood's England team shirt after a grueling practice match. The 22-year-old fullback is about to be called up by his country.

But it's not England which requires his skills.

Mahmood will be swapping his red England kit for the green and white of Pakistan, which has embarked on a global search for soccer talent - starting in northern England.

"This is broadening our base and opening doors to Pakistanis around the world who want to play football," said Sardar Naveed Haider Khan, a director at Pakistan's soccer federation.

Ranked 176th in the FIFA world rankings, Pakistan wants to boost its fledgling domestic league and, above all, improve its national side. Pakistan has never qualified for the World Cup or Asia Cup, while cricket and field hockey remain the most popular sports.

More than 130 players attended the weekend tryouts at Rotherham United. The eight winners - chosen by Rotherham coaches - will be training at Pakistan's national soccer academy in Lahore by the end of next week.

While they are British citizens, the players are eligible to line up for Pakistan because of their family heritage.

Rotherham also used the occasion to spot talent for the struggling League Two club.

"It's an untapped market," said Mick Priest, a former coach at Manchester United's academy who now heads Rotherham's youth department.

Like many British citizens of Asian descent, Mahmood - who is from Birmingham - has struggled to get a foothold in the professional game.

"From a young age I have been committed to the game - even practicing on my own in the park," said Mahmood, who had an unsuccessful trial at Premier League club Aston Villa.

"But here it just hasn't happened for me - or many other British Asians. We don't see a way into the game, but hopefully I can win my first cap and become a role model to show other Asian kids it is possible to break through," he said.

There are almost 750,000 British Pakistanis. Not one plays in the Premier League and just three are on the books of England's lower leagues clubs.

Zesh Rahman, a 23-year-old centerback who spent three seasons with Premier League club Fulham before joining Championship side Queens Park Rangers last year, said some agents were biased.

"Before an agent or scout has a look at a player, they are going into it with stereotypes - with the perception that religion is going to interfere with the football," said Rahman, a Muslim who now plays for Pakistan despite reaching England's under-19 team.

In the wake of the suicide bombings on the London transport network in 2005 and subsequent foiled terror plots, many Muslims complain about being unfairly targeted by individuals seeking revenge for the acts of extremists.

Saeed Mehr, who brought his 21-year-old son Zain to the trials in south Yorkshire, said players' lifestyles also affected their chances.

"Sometimes Zain says players who go to the pub after matches get more chances than him," Mehr said.

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