Women have faced an uphill struggle for decades as they have tried to become a reputable part of the footballing community, but for Annie Zaidi the task plunged into new depths as she struggled to shrug of not only sexism, but Islamophobia too. But any obstacles that step in her way will not stop her from trying to achieve her dream of being the one to replace Arsene Wenger at Arsenal.
Opportunities for women with an ethnic background to get involved in football are still at an all-time low, despite racism and sexism being frowned upon in the current day and age. Research from the Fare Network found that of the ‘Elite level clubs’ playing in England, Germany, Spain, France, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands, 96.6% of the senior coaches are white men.
Research conducted by Sports Coach UK led them to make the statement that “Female coaches say football can be like an ‘old boys network’ where women have to prove their knowledge in order to gain the respect of male coaches.” Although possibly not true in all cases, Zaidi’s experiences would suggest the research they conduct isn’t far wrong.
Newcastle was the destination where one of her first chances to coach men presented itself. Zaidi was studying at Durham University at the time, and claims the chance was somewhat a baptism of fire into the world of football coaching.
“For four or five weeks they didn’t like it. After the tragedies of 9/11 and 7/7 and because I was wearing a headscarf I was a more visible Muslim. I had to gain their respect rather than them just respecting me straight away.
“I came away from tackles with broken ribs and swollen ankles, and it was just a nightmare. Because I’m a feisty one the more I fell down the harder I got back up, and eventually that gained their respect.” She mentioned.
Taking those hits was all worth it in the end, and she believes the wider effect that her ability to get back up after being knocked down showed will have helped to educate those players in Newcastle to appreciate her as a coach for her ability, rather than her sex or race.
“Eventually I realised that football was just not a game. It was breaking down social barriers and creating communication.
“They won’t see a Muslim woman in a headscarf and automatically think she is a terrorist like they might have. They will appreciate women coaches now too.” She claimed.
Her love for the sport stems from being a younger sister to two keen football enthusiast brothers, who gave her little choice but to take up the sport so she could remain involved with her siblings. But despite beginning to love the sport, her opportunities to take it further back then were lacking.
“Me being me I had to fit in and I had to join in with the lads. It was a hobby that I loved but sadly there weren’t really any opportunities for girls to play back then, especially for a girl with a different coloured skin.
“It was a bit like me against the world. I’m a bit of a feisty one and I’d always say that they could take my bib and my ball away from me, but one thing they could never take away is my passion. If someone tells me I can’t do something, I’ll do it anyway to prove them wrong.” She stated.
Zaidi was awarded the Helen Rollason Award for inspiration at the Sky Sports Sportswomen of the year awards in 2015, and received plaudits from high-profile male figures in the sport at the ceremony such as David Beckham, Les Ferdinand and Chris Ramsey.
“I was taken aback by the comments that Sir Les Ferdinand and Chris Ramsey said about me. I think their words were more overwhelming and heart-warming than the award itself.
“My Grandfather since the award has promoted me to being his favourite Grandchild of the 10 he has got, because back in Pakistan everyone knows about David Beckham. I’d love to know why I wasn’t already his favourite, but that’s another story.” She joked.
The ambitious coach has already gone a long way to achieving her ultimate goal of coaching at the top level in the men’s game, and currently coaches the under-11 girls at Leicester City’s academy, something she describes as her “proudest moment to date”.
Although happy with her current lifestyle, Zaidi like anyone aspires to become bigger and better than she is now, and hopes her determination and grit will get her to that destination.
“My ultimate goal is to get my A license and get a job full time in the men’s game. Arsenal is my dream though.
“This season I’ve got more trophies for being a good coach than Arsene Wenger has, so why not. I’d love to meet him and talk to him and pick at his brain though.” She concluded.
Arsenal’s senior side is the dream, but for Zaidi to have an impact at a professional level in the men’s game would almost certainly show the footballing world that sex or race are not an obstacle if your passion is football.