What does it REALLY take to be a professional footballer?

Well what gives me the authority to write about this, am I a professional footballer? Well the answer of course is no. For those who know me, know that I have played for many teams, and even represented Bangladesh youth, but I never made it as a professional footballer even though I have played for West Ham youth and played with some of the professional stars on show in the English Premiership. Why?

There are two issues I am going to tackle in this report, what it takes to be noticed and why South Asian and Eastern African football players are not represented on the professional level of football. But first let me give you a little insight into my past experience (don’t worry im not going to bore you with my life story!).

Like every budding young player, you start kicking a football as soon as you can walk. I grew up in my primary school days playing football with the likes of Ledley King and Ashley Cole who lived in my area. At a young age I believed I was the best and strived to be the best and it paid off as I was always the first to be picked. I captained my primary school team (Ledley King was also in my primary school) to win the then famous Smiths Crisp Cup at Wembley, which is like the FA Cup of primary school football.

In secondary school, I again too represented my school as team captain throughout the years, winning the Inner London Schools League (I am not too sure if these cups and leagues exist now). At thirteen, I was chosen to represent my borough, Tower Hamlets, again linking up with Ledley King and Ashley Cole as we ended up going to different schools. It was hard for as I was the only Asian player to play for Tower Hamlets at that time and also as many people know, I am a very short fellow, but again with hard work and commitment, not only did I cement my place in the team but ended up captaining the team. I also then got to represent Bangladesh in an under 16’s International Tournament in Denmark, reaching the semi-finals.

But it was at fourteen that my breakthrough came. My geography teacher in school (who was also our football coach) invited some scouts to watch one of our games. I think they were there to watch Daniel Shittu, who if you know, now represents Q.P.R and Nigeria, but it was my number that came up. In that game I played I was moved about into different positions and played at right-back, left-midfield and in central midfield and was picked up by West Ham.

At West Ham it was hard. I had to up my game as I was playing with better players (Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard Jnr, Joe Cole, you know the score) and for the first time in my life I had to really fight for my place. Well, I never got my place as Frank Lampard Jnr, who now plays for Chelsea and England, got it. I felt hard done by as Lampard’s father, Frank Lampard Snr, was the then youth team coach, and I felt I was never given a fair chance. But Lampard is showing us now why he got it, as he is arguably one of England’s best players!

Then at sixteen disaster struck as I broke my leg twice and was out the game for over a year. This is where the rest was my entire fault. I never ever got support from my parents who told me I was wasting my time, they never once watched me play and always kept saying to concentrate more on my studies than this stupid game. But after I broke my leg, I think I gave up, I put on weight and lost my pace. Instead of keeping fit and trying to get back as quick as possible, I just unwearyingly gave up. All credit to West Ham, they helped through what was not a nice period for me. I did not keep to the routine they gave me and when I recovered from my injury was not even half the player I was, and was subsequently released. I even had a trial at Charlton after that, linking up with my school buddy Danny Shittu, but that too came to nothing. After that I just play football because I love the game and have played for Globe Town, Vallance FC, Walthamstow Wanderers and now NYL. But what was it that made me rise and what was that made me fall?

There are many lessons to learn from my experience. I know I had two traits that not everyone is born with but can easily acquire. Firstly, I am a born leader. I knew it from young as I was a leader among my peers (and I grew up with a proper multi-cultural group). But this is a trait that everyone can attain to some degree, and you don’t necessarily need to inspire people to be leader. To simply encourage someone is being a leader; to correct someone is being a leader; to say kind words to people is being a leader; to motivate people is being a leader; to be a shoulder to lean on is being a leader. This is something we should all try and do, and by doing this you can inspire others around you.

Secondly and more importantly, I had to be the best. I had that attitude where I didn’t know how to lose, I had to win. This was the case in football and consequently this was also the case in my academic studies. Even in my schoolwork, mine had to be best. If someone did something that was better than mine, I had to beat him/her. I took everything in life as a competition. But you’ll never be the best unless you are organised and disciplined and I was disciplined, I used to be the first one to everything; in training, when meeting up, when going somewhere, and I always tried my best and even in training I had to be the best.

These were the two reasons I believe for how I managed to get noticed and for my early football achievements. In football, you need to have that raw technical ability, but without hard work and the right attitude you’ll never win. Only when you are disciplined and have that will-to-win will you achieve things, in football and in life.

So what was my downfall? Quite simple; a lack of discipline. I was always encouraged by my peers and teachers that I would be the first Asian player in Britain to make it, but my frustration of not being able to oust Lampard at West Ham and my broken leg changed my mentality and without noticing it I simply gave up. At a time when Asian footballers were not even given the opportunity I got, people then kept raising the issue of institutionalised racism and how an ethnic minority player would never be picked over a white person. I think that during my injury, instead of wanting to prove these people wrong like I had done so far, I stopped fighting. Once I was released by West Ham I never quite got my confidence back to play with the same attitude as I had always done so.

The thing to learn is that I must have done something right for them to even notice me, and I know what it was. It was my ability to strive to better myself, as a person and as a player, and my mentality. I never gave up and had to win at everything and always wanted to learn from my coaches and that is an essential quality that all scouts and coaches look for.

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