“SSeeing a Muslim on TV or at a live match will hopefully instill in other young children, Muslim and non-Muslim, the feeling that there is no barrier to their involvement in the professional game” said assistant referee Abbas Khan when asked if he was a role model for the next generation of Muslim referees. “A big part of my religion is serving my community and becoming a match official is an incredible opportunity to do that. »
Khan, an assistant referee from Leicestershire, has officiated for six seasons in League One and League Two and is determined to demonstrate that anything is possible for other officials from ethnic minority backgrounds.
He is one of 42 officials participating in an elite referee development plan which aims, among other things, to open the pathway from grassroots football to the professional game for officials from under-represented backgrounds. The project is overseen by Professional Game Match Officials Ltd (PGMOL) and supported by the Premier League, Football Association and English Football League.
The initial cohort of 28 (30% of whom are of Black, Asian or mixed heritage) have been offered more than 250 opportunities at senior levels during the 2022-23 season. Those now operating primarily at a higher level now include Akil Howson, Sam Allison, Rebecca Welch, Farai Hallam and Emily Heaslip.
“It is extremely important that these professional organizations commit to diversifying their workforce to help remove barriers to success,” says Khan. “Not only religiously, but also ethnically, I have faced many barriers in my life. Growing up, I was a victim of large groups where I was inevitably outnumbered, in terms of ethnic appearance and religious background.
“Having a more diverse workforce is extremely important because it naturally encourages those who work in it to be curious, to ask questions or ask questions, to learn more about each other and to better understand backgrounds , cultural differences, religious beliefs and each person’s way of life. »
PGMOL and anti-discrimination organization Kick It Out have announced a partnership where they will join forces to champion equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in football.
Part of the initiative involves the creation of a digital learning space for PGMOL staff and match officials to participate in educational sessions via Kick It Out’s online platform, The Academy. The next course that officials and staff will attend is an introduction to Islam and Muslim communities.
PGMOL was the first refereeing organization to recruit a Muslim athlete and Khan would like clubs to do more to highlight the complexities of being Muslim at the highest levels of the professional game.
“I think the biggest obstacles at clubs for Muslim officials are prayer rooms, or quiet places to pray and reflect before and after a match, and clubs’ understanding and support of Ramadan “, he said.
“Clubs should be actively encouraged to promote Ramadan and inform their supporters and content consumers on social media that Muslims break their fast at times when there is occasional conflict with matches. Therefore, breaking the fast by a Muslim during a match should not be considered an extraordinary event. But this should be considered perfectly normal.
Khan highlights the power of social media allowing clubs to show their staff and players that they are breaking their fast. “I think it would gain more respect from the fans, more quickly,” he says.
Khan says it is “heartening” to see initiatives being taken to address issues and create a more accessible environment for everyone. He will continue to hold organizations accountable and is excited that leaders from underrepresented communities are shining in the professional game. “It’s something I never thought I’d see in my life,” he said.