Five months ago, Rimla Akhtar became the first Muslim woman on the FA Council. In a body which Football Association chairman, Greg Dyke, says is “overwhelmingly male and white”, Akhtar is seen as the ideal role model for the Asian community.
But, when I mention this, the 32-year-old chartered accountant smiles and says: “That’s up to others to decide.”
She is one of six women on the 121-strong FA Council, which helps decide major policy for the governing body, and her appointment comes at a time when the lack of diversity in positions of power within the game is a hot topic.
Yesterday’s report by the Sport Person’s Think Tank highlighted the problem with just 19 of the 552 ‘top’ coaching positions at English clubs being held by blacks and ethnic minorities. The only bosses are Chris Powell (right) at Huddersfield and Keith Curle at Carlisle.
“It is unacceptable that we have only two black League managers when something like 30 per cent of players within football are from the black community,” says Akhtar. “We need to see how we can open up football to more diverse managers. It’s a problem right across football, we also have very few black board members. Change does need to happen.”
It has been suggested that football should adopt its own version of the NFL’s Rooney Rule, whereby clubs must interview at least one black or minority ethnic candidate for a managerial vacancy.
However, Akhtar says: “For me, quotas are a short-term strategy. I wouldn’t want to be selected for something because I’m a woman, because I’m Asian or because I’m Muslim. I would like to be selected on merit. I’ve had people really close to me, relatives even, that have said, ‘you do realise that you’re being included just because you wear the scarf’.
“In the long term, it’s about making the sports environment more inclusive. That’s what’s lacking right now. We need to get an inclusive mindset as well as action on the ground.”
But Akhtar is quick to point out: “It’s not just in football [that there is an issue]. This is a problem across all areas of sport. There’s no hiding that there is sexism in sport. We have a lack of women right across all levels of management, playing and coaching. It shows the closed nature of sport in general and this includes the media. It’s an indictment of sport as a whole.”
Although Akhtar has attended just three council meetings, the way she talks suggests she is already adopting the classic FA position; that the diversity problem is not just limited to football.
But why has English football failed to produce Asian players? “We have a real problem,” says Akhtar. “There is a lack of role models. Moeen Ali is now in the cricket team. For years, we’ve had Monty Panesar. We’ve not seen it in football and that’s one of the challenges.”
And she accepts Asian parents also have to do more. “In Asian communities, education is put first. My brothers went through that as well. We are the children of immigrants to this country and sport was treated as a hobby.”
But, while Akhtar draws encouragement from the fact that these issues are at last being discussed seriously, she confesses: “There is a long way to go to get to a place of parity. There is a lot of work to be done. The structures of football need to change a lot. It will take a few years before we get there.”
So how long will it be until football is truly more diverse?
“Possibly 10 years. I have to be realistic about this.”
Akhtar is chair of the Muslim Women’s Sports Foundation and was voted onto the FA Council by her peers from the Inclusion Advisory Board.
The child of Pakistani immigrants, who has been wearing a hijab since she was 11, knows all about discrimination. She says: “I’m born and bred British, a Londoner through and through. I grew up in the 80s when there was a lot of racism in the community.
“We were the first family to move into a particular area that was white so with that came a lot of verbal and physical abuse. My two older brothers were beaten up on the streets. Sport was the one area where I felt nobody cared about the colour of my skin or the fact that I wore a piece of cloth around my head, or my gender even. It’s where I was accepted. Everywhere else I wasn’t.”
Akhtar both plays and coaches football and, despite an upbringing in Edgware, is a Liverpool fan. However, when attending the 2005 Carling Cup Final — four years after the 9/11 attacks — she suffered abuse from fellow Liverpool supporters.
“It was at the Millennium Stadium where we lost to Chelsea. I was wearing my hijab and I had comments, yes by my own fans, about being a terrorist.”
Akhtar is convinced sport can provide an answer to society’s problems. This belief lay behind her successful campaign to get FIFA to accept that women should be allowed to play football wearing hijabs. “My work is not finished. Men who wear turbans or Jewish men who wear the yarmulke still have the same problems. This is about allowing everyone to be included in sport.”
And there is one great ambition that drives her.
“I don’t intend to be a token Muslim woman on the FA Council.”