Why playing abroad can be the best option for players
BUMP, bump, bump… as his head knocked against the roof of the tiny minibus Zesh Rehman thought to himself, ‘what am I doing here?’
Rehman was in Bangkok, having swapped English football for a club in Thailand, and the minibus edging its way through tortuous traffic, finding every one of the abundant potholes, was only making its way to training. Afterwards there was the return journey, and tomorrow, the same again.
Six years on, as he looks back on making nearly 200 appearances for clubs in three countries, winning a cluster of trophies including domestic trebles in Hong Kong and Malaysia, he no longer has any doubts. Indeed, the only question for the former QPR, Fulham and Bradford defender is where to take his boots next. So rewarding has been his globetrotting he is encouraging others to follow him on the road. But, he added, they needed to go with the right attitude.
“I had one year in Thailand, two in Hong Kong, the last three in Malaysia,” Rehman said when we met as he took a winter break back in England. “It has been a brilliant, lifechanging experience. My daughter was born in Hong Kong, my son in Malaysia. I strongly recommend it to players looking for new challenges, or avenues to stay in the game. Don’t just wait for something to turn up, seek it out. If you broaden your horizons there are a host of opportunities out there.
“The passion for the game in Asia is huge. In Malaysia we won the cup final in front of 100,000 fans with the ground full three hours before kick-off. When we had an open-top bus ride around the city to celebrate there were so many people we took an hour to go five minutes. It was great playing in the Premier League with Fulham, and being involved with the community at Bradford, but this was something different.
“It is not easy. Spaces are limited for foreign players so you are up against players who have played in the top flight in Spain, Germany, Brazil, Romania, and so on. You have to be on your game.”
Rehman found that out quickly. After leaving Bradford in 2011 he signed up for Muangthong United in Bangkok, knowing little of what he was getting into. “The training ground was not ready when we got there so we were training in a school, getting there by minibus. Every time it hit a bump I banged my head.
“One of the foreign lads, Toni Kallio, a Finnish international who I played with at Fulham, he couldn’t handle it. He was ‘what is this?, what is this?’ Within a few months he was gone, his contract terminated. That was a wake-up call: deal with it, show professionalism regardless of circumstances. Do your bit on the pitch, not moan about the apartment, the training ground, banging your head on the bus. I had a car. In the first few weeks I knocked someone off and spent the day in hospital with them. But you become aware of environment and after a few months I was whizzing around on the tuk-tuks.
“We conceded nine or ten goals in the first three games and we had Thai national team players at the back. So I studied the language and it turned around. We started to keep clean sheets and win games. I started to enjoy it more. I put my local hat on. “As the foreign player you have to be a leader. You are expected to transmit professionalism in everything you do, even the way you eat and stretch. That is why you are imported. But you also have to be aware the level might not be the same as yours coming from Europe and the environment is different. Support mechanisms for players are very important. I was fortunate my family were very supportive and embraced the challenge.
“There are stadia out there which would not be out of place in any top league in Europe, like Buriram in Thailand. Others are more like Stockport or Grimsby. I played in the Asian Football Cup which took me to many countries. I made my debut in Indonesia and it was 35-40 degrees. I had to come off after an hour. There was no air-con in the changing room, no ice in the water, those tricks to get an edge. It is ridiculously hot sometimes, like a sauna. You get used to it – but it is nice to come back here for a bit of winter.”
Rehman was offered the chance to stay on and coach Pahang in Malaysia but intends to keep playing while he can. “Chris Coleman told me to play as long as possible and at 33 I have several years left,” he said. He is not sure where yet, but he knows he will be needing his passport to get there.
ON THE MOVE: Zesh Rehman playing in England for Fulham, far left, before going on his travels...
ADVICE: Chris Coleman