A name familiar to many in England is proving quite an innovator in the far East.
Former England midfielder Nicky Butt brought a small shred of focus upon Hong Kong’s First Division via his short stint with South China but by and large the nation’s footballing tapestry is as yet still a relatively underutilised commodity. Birmingham-born Pakistani international defender Zesh Rehman was the first British Asian to play in all four of England’s professional divisions and he is now breaking new ground in the Far East.
Rehman, 28, represented Fulham in the Premier League, making his debut for Chris Coleman’s side against Liverpool at Anfield in 2004, with loans at Brighton & Hove Albion and Norwich City also during his time on the books at Craven Cottage. After a permanent move to Championship Queens Park Rangers in 2006 he would later add Blackpool and Bradford City to his CV, captaining the latter and winning widespread acclaim for his community projects and foundation which was established in 2010.
After over a year with one of Thai football’s premier names Muang Thong United he decided to take on the challenge of the Hong Kong game this year and the on-field fortunes thus far look to have vindicated that decision. His club Kitchee SC won the Halewinner League Cup this month with a 2-1 win over TSW Pegasus, a rival who are closely pursuing Kitchee in the league as the season nears its conclusion. Rehman has been integral and registered his first goal for the club in a competition that could be considered the Asian equivalent of the Europa League, scoring against Vietnamese outfit Song Lam Nghe An.
“We are performing well in the AFC Cup and are currently top of the group and stand an excellent chance of reaching the last 16,’’ he said. “We are now top of the (domestic) league and with two home games left we have put ourselves in a good position to win it. It’s in our hands and hopefully we will carry on performing how we have been and win the title. We are taking it game by game.’’
The league cup win was secured on the 15 April as Spanish striker Yago Gonzalez Lopez and midfielder Lo Kwan Yee put Kitchee into a two goal lead at the Mong Kok Stadium before Pegasus’ Brazilian frontman Leandro Carrijo reduced the arrears from the penalty spot. Securing the silverware was an early reward for Rehman in his latest venture and it has been a move which has been all the more seamless thanks to his time spent previously in Thailand with the 2009 and 2010 Premier League champions Muang Thong.
“The league cup win was a brilliant feeling, we deserved to win on the day and it could have been by a lot more – the preparation from the coaches was spot on. I have settled in very well into Hong Kong, the club have been excellent in making the transition from Thailand as smooth as possible.
“On the pitch I’m enjoying my football and have been an ever-present in the side – it’s always good to play on a consistent basis. Having the experience of moving abroad already under the belt most definitely made it easier to adapt here.’’
His former club were also represented last season by former Liverpool striking hero and England international Robbie Fowler who even ended up becoming player-manager. Fowler is now back home although as yet without a new club after being strongly linked at one time with a move to Blackpool and also spending time using the facilities at his ex-Cardiff City boss Dave Jones’ club Sheffield Wednesday. Last season Muang Thong did not manage to win a third title in succession, finishing third in the Premier League behind champions Buriram PEA and runners-up Chonburi, and also losing out to Buriram in the Thai FA Cup final. Rehman was a fellow top flight player with Fowler in England at one point and he enjoyed working with the former Leeds United and Manchester City man, also feeling that certain regulations imposed will be beneficial for the domestic game in Thailand.
“Robbie was great to play with and learn from, I get on well with him and found him a very humble guy who liked to pass on his experience. He did well as a manager and I’m sure that experience will do him good for the future.
“He got his points across but you need the players to get the maximum benefit and results. Muang Thong, Buriram and Chonburi are the three benchmark clubs because they represent Thailand in the AFC Cup and AFC Champions League, as well as having the best support, salaries and facilities.
“Thai football will improve because now the rules only allow three foreigners to play at any time so the quality of foreign player will improve, in turn helping the local lads.’’
Rehman has captained Pakistan in the past but grew up close to Aston Villa’s Villa Park, and he initially found it difficult to adapt to the Thai lifestyle, but an iPhone language application helped him hugely. After then being able to interact more freely with the residents and his teammates he began to love his surroundings, also deciding to develop his own language app to assist other players plying their trade in foreign lands. The ‘Football Talk’ app features Thai, Spanish, Portuguese, French and German translations for native English-speaking footballers.
“The application was to help myself and other players with the obvious language barrier they will face. It’s had over 100 downloads so it’s progressing well.’’
He explains the circumstances leading to his move away from Southeast Asia and the similarities and differences between Thailand and Hong Kong in terms of football and the everyday culture.
“The club (Kitchee) contacted me and were looking in particular for an Asian signing for this year’s AFC Cup. I had options from Lebanon, Singapore and some Middle East interest but after speaking with the president of the club and the coach I was more than happy with my choice, they are very professional and ambitious people who want to improve Hong Kong football.
“There are lots of similarities (with Thailand), the food is not a million miles different, the passion from the fans is equal. Off the pitch I would say the public transport system is outstanding in Hong Kong, very efficient and convenient.
“I am enjoying Asia as a whole and I always try to embrace to the full the people, football and culture. The level (of playing standard) is similar, I think the heat is a major factor in Thailand affecting the pace of the game but Hong Kong has four seasons very similar to the UK.
“The Hong Kong league is a little more direct and physical.’’
The Zesh Rehman Foundation has been working for two years to help under-represented Asian sporting talent in the UK but also to make sport, especially football, accessible to all, with continuing progress in evidence at present.
“We have started official partnerships with Liverpool for which Steven Gerrard is an ambassador and we are working closely with Crystal Palace as well as Bolton Wanderers on inspiring kids to become coaches and volunteers and to gain qualifications that raise their self-esteem as well as leading to potential future employment. The foundation is for kids from all backgrounds regardless of faith or ethnicity.’’
Football in China has garnered increasing attention lately with former France international striker Nicolas Anelka playing for Shanghai Shenhua and briefly taking charge of the team, although fellow countryman Jean-Florent Ikwange Ibenge is expected to be confirmed as Jean Tigana’s permanent successor. Hong Kong faces a sizeable task in following China’s suit of tempting further reputable names but for the time being Arsenal are set to play Rehman’s Kitchee side in July as part of their 2012 Asian pre-season tour, with aims in place to continue raising the nation’s footballing profile.
You can read more from Chris at the really rather good Beats and Rhymes FC.