1-on-1 with Kashif Siddiqi

KASHIF SIDDIQI has certainly led a jet-set lifestyle which most people can only dream of. From growing up in an estate in west London to playing pro football in America’s West Coast, the 24-year-old is living it up. But it hasn’t been all fun and frolics for the former Arsenal & Boston United academy player, who has had to deal with a number of career-threatening injuries to achieve his dream. And the Hayes-born player believes he still has a lot more to achieve in the game. BASA’s Zohaib Rashid caught up with Siddiqi to talk about his journey to the USA, playing international football for Pakistan and how his faith has helped him through the good and bad times…

Kashif, you’ve just returned from America recently, what have you been up to in the last year?

Well, I completed my scholarship contract and earned a degree in Business Administration at Fresno Pacific University in California, while also playing

Playing in Fresno, California in 2009

for Fresno Fuego who play in the USL Western Conference. It’s been a crazy year as I had a hip operation in the beginning of last year; therefore playing was hit and miss. However, I have recovered and am working hard to get back to full fitness. Last year I was selected to play for the Pakistan International XI in a friendly against Woking FC in August, so I flew back for a couple of weeks before returning back. Since the season ended in the US, I’ve now turned my focus on the AFC Asian Challenge Cup qualifiers, which the Pakistan team will be playing in March.

Sounds like it’s been a pretty hectic year…

Believe me, it’s been frantic. I’ve had to keep myself self-motivated to train, especially trying to strengthen my hip. This year, there will be games with Pakistan and as I am a free agent now, I’m currently weighing up my options where I want to play. There are a few offers on the table so I’ll have to work out what’s the best opportunity for me.

What are your options? Are you looking for a club in England or heading abroad?

Well, playing abroad in hot countries has spoilt me, so I don’t really crave coming back to the cold in England. Warmer cities in Europe have recently become an option and I was also offered a choice to play in the Indian I-League with Churchill Brothers just a month ago. There’s also a chance to play in the Middle-East and the option to return to pro football in America. To be honest, it will come down to what I think will best suit my future plans aside from football, and of course, God always has a plan.

It sounds like you’ve led quite the jet-set lifestyle what with playing in America and for Pakistan…

My dad used to work for an airline, so I’ve been used to it from a young age, and I am the sort of person that needs frequent change. Plus I love travelling and meeting new people so I can’t complain. However, in the last few years it’s been pretty demanding. Especially when I’ve had to join the Pakistan national team camp days before the team flies off to another country, it takes a lot of you. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel around the world, and even in America, we’ve travelled on domestic flights all over playing games in different states. I’ve lived half my life on a plane!

Tell us, how does a kid from west London end up playing pro football in Sunkist state of California?

I grew up living with my mum on an estate and used to kick a ball around with some of the older boys. My close circle included a lot of talented footballers and I would look up to them and work extra hard to narrow the gap between our abilities. I encouraged myself to not go out, train consistently and get better. I then got picked up to play for a local side; Manor Cubs FC, which was one of the best youth teams in Middlesex. From there I moved on to play for pro academies, and got selected to play for Middlesex County u-16s. I spent time at Arsenal and Wycombe Wanderers before settling at Hayes and Yeading for a while. I then transferred to Boston United who were in League Two at the time. I was offered a chance of a scholarship to UCLA; their scouts spotted me when I was playing for Middlesex County. They flew my mum and me to Beverly Hills and having already visited the LA region before I always knew I’d want to live there one day. Unfortunately, after all the paperwork was done, they couldn’t offer me a full scholarship because I had links to a pro club and couldn’t feature for the college team right away; as it was a NCAA Division One school. So I had to take another root. I then got a full scholarship to Eckerd College in Florida. From there, I eventually made my way back to NCAA Division 1 and played in South Carolina and went to Presbyterian College but still couldn’t settle there. But I guess God had a plan for me because I then received an offer from Fresno Fuego, a club in California who had a two-year plan to get into the second tier of pro football in America. I decided to take up the offer as long as I could finish my degree. The club then put me in touch with Fresno Pacific University, and I was fortunate enough to do both.

And you’ve also played for the Pakistan under-23 and senior team. How did that come about?

I went on holiday to Pakistan and was playing for a team. A few scouts from PIA came and offered me a chance to play for PIA and they invited me for a two-week trial with them. I then had scouts from the national team offering me a six-week trial with the national team, which was brilliant. I was training with the senior team and it was an amazing opportunity which really took my confidence and profession to another level. From then, I got included in the squad to play in the 2008 Beijing Olympic Qualifiers against the likes of Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar.

Can you remember your debut against Bahrain in June 2007?

Yes, I can remember it like it was yesterday! I didn’t get much sleep the night before, not anxiousness but excitement! When we got to the stadium, I can’t even remember how many people there were, it must have been around 15,000-20,000 people. There was so much noise; we couldn’t even hear the manager talk in the dressing rooms. The atmosphere was different to England. There was definitely a culture shock – it was a lot to take in. There was a lot going on but that’s when you had to be in a zone, focus and block out everything else. The hardest moment was playing against Qatar. The home fans were crazy, playing Arabic music and drums and it was really distracting. I made my senior team debut in the South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) in 2008 in the Maldives, playing the hosts, India and Nepal.

For some people, that is quite an impressive start to your football career but it hasn’t been one which has been easy…

To be honest, words can’t describe the journey I’ve been on; it’s been bumpy to say the least. Some people think my career sounds fun, painless and lavish! At times it has been quite the opposite, especially when you are so far from loved ones and no one to keep you uplifted. I’ve had to battle two career-threatening injuries, and I’m just about pain-free from my hip operation and I also had a hernia operation in 2009 and before that, I shattered every bone in my foot during my first season in the States. At times you think to yourself if it’s worth continuing but I managed to stay optimistic, determined and came back. The experiences I have had to deal with have made me extremely strong.

What’s been the secret to your positive thinking?

I guess it’s my faith in god and all the opportunities He has given me. I always pray and give thanks because I have been blessed. But my greatest personal debt is to my parents and friends who have managed to bear with me through the personal and professional challenges of trying to become a world class athlete. Their patience has been inexhaustible, and their emotional support indispensible.

How important have your family been in your career development?

To be honest, it’s been down to my mum, she has been my number one fan from a young age and a role model to me. She is the only reason I was able to make a career or even join a club when I was younger. My mum has supported me in every possible way and taken a big interest in my career. I am working hard to pay her back for all her effort in helping me mould my career.

And one thing which is important is that you also have your education as a backup…

Yes definitely, that always keeps me at ease. If for any reason I stop playing, I will have a foundation to fall back on. Both my parents played a big role in opting for me to play sport, but reminded me that education was also an important part of growing up. When Boston United came in for me, they felt I should finish my education first and play for a local team. But the academy manager convinced them that it will be best for both our interests, and assured them that as well as getting professional coaching, I would also go to college to do a course. And in America, I studied for a degree, played university football and then moved on to pro football. Playing football while studying has really helped me mature and grow as a person. It has forced me to see life in a whole different manner. I would encourage all younger aspiring footballers to try and find a healthy balance between the two. Neither one is more important, both sport and books educate us in diverse ways.

A few Asian players have spoken about being discriminated against when they were younger. Has that happened to you?

When I was about to sign YTS forms with Boston United, my head of year tried to dissuade me. He said “How many Asians actually make it in football?” But I secretly laughed at him and thought the opposite, it was these kinds of hurdles I wanted to prove I could clear, and I was lucky to have the mental strength to make it without the negativity.

What advice would you give to the Asian community after your experience in football?

First, to any Asians who play football, if you think you have the tiniest bit of talent, you should keep working on your strengths, improve your weaknesses and look after your body. Sleep well and eat nutritiously. This should be your foundation, there’s no point in trying to drive a car if your thrusting it with the wrong fuel; you are what you eat. Some people say that in football, talent counts for just 30 per cent while commitment makes up 70 per cent. I vow to this, I wasn’t the finest player; I had several friends who were better than me. However, I did the above and took my chances. I want to tell Asian families to let their children take risks and follow their dreams, and be there to support them. And there is a myth that some people believe that if you’re not pro by 16, you won’t make it. There are only a small number of academy players who actually make it in professional football. Also, we should remember that football is not just limited to this country. If you get released from a club here, then there is nothing stopping you going abroad and trying it there.

What is the one thing football has given you?

Hope. Football has given me the hope to want to succeed and also help others achieve their dreams. The greatest feeling in the world is when you tie up your boots. Nothing comes close to being on the pitch and being in a privileged position. It’s that feeling that has kept me humble and makes me appreciate everything that comes my way.

Playing in the National Quarter Finals for Fresno