By Alicia Buller
British footballer Kashif Siddiqi explains why he left Oxford United to play for war-torn Kashmir
As one of the few British Asian professional footballers playing today, Kashif Siddiqi has achieved many feats – on the pitch and beyond.
Since making his debut on the international circuit and playing in the 2008 Beijing Olympic Qualifiers, Siddiqi has become known as South Asia’s footballing globetrotter.
But now the 33-year old Pakistani defender has taken on his most daring challenge yet – Siddiqi has swapped England’s Oxford United team for Real Kashmir, the only professional football club in the heavily militarised warzone. The club plays in the I-League, India’s top tier.
The one-year loan will see Siddiqi take to the pitch in the notorious India-Pakistan battleground, where ongoing fighting has resulted in more than 100 deaths last year.
Siddiqi says that his loan is “proof” of his commitment to the wider importance of the game. In 2013 he co-founded with former Chile international Elías Figueroa the Football For Peace (FFP) charity, which runs a number of programmes around the world that use the game to address social issues.
Siddiqi says he has been offered many opportunities at clubs in Europe and Asia, but Kashmir is where he feels he can make the biggest contribution.
“I think going to Kashmir makes a really big statement and brings real visibility to football diplomacy and showcases how important football is in the world. This opportunity could really bring some awareness to Kashmir,” he tells Arabian Business.
The FFP co-founder says billions of people watch football matches every week and the soft power of the beautiful game should be used to “address the pressing issues we face on our planet”.
“Soft power [is] about creating dialogues through initiatives, other than war and conflict. If you look at what football can do, it can really transcend religion and culture.
“Playing football cuts through culture, political values, foreign policies, and the most important thing is that it creates dialogue through a different means,” the footballer says.
Siddiqi says his family background inspired his unique philanthropic approach to football.
“My heritage is South Asian but I was born and raised in Britain. My mother was born in Uganda – she came over to the UK after the Idi Amin conflict – and my father was from India. It’s a very interesting mix. It’s my mother’s refugee journey that inspired me to co-found FFP,” he says.
In 2013, Siddiqi became only one of five British South Asians to have been signed by an English Professional League Club. He was also the first British South Asian to have been awarded a scholarship for soccer in the US and play professional football in Europe, North America and the Middle East.
He credits his achievements both on and off the pitch to “his mother and faith in God”. Throughout his career so far, Siddiqi has been recognised for his goodwill work by the Duke of Cambridge, Prince William, former British Prime Minister David Cameron, Prince Ali of Jordan and Pope Francis, among others.
Siddiqi describes the FFP organisation as a “diplomatic sports movement that brings people together and creates understanding through the beautiful game.”
“Our vision is that every country in the world uses football diplomacy to help bring about peace and more tolerant societies”
FFP conducts one-off football matches held around the world to raise awareness of football diplomacy and promote a message of equality and peace.
The body also runs Young Ambassador Training – a local community initiative that uses football to connect young people from different faiths, cultures and backgrounds and get them to communicate, play together and learn to confront stereotypes and better understand one another.
“The first peace match we did was in the Middle East. The club has given so much hope to the children of this region. I feel we can probably do a lot more with sport, more than what we currently do,” Siddiqi says.
“Our vision is that every country in the world uses football diplomacy to help bring about peace and more tolerant societies,” he adds.
“The first peace match we did was in the Middle East. The club has given so much hope to the children of this region”
Siddiqi insists that football is the one thing that can unite the Middle East.
“It’s such a football-loving region. Abu Dhabi is hosting the FIFA Club Championships, there’s so much happening in the region and I feel that we miss a trick with the one thing everyone has in common – football. The sport touches rulers, children, and the working man. Football unites not only the Middle East, but also Asia with the Middle East.”
Futbol Por La Paz (Football for Peace) was established in 2006 by FIFA and Chilean legend Elias Figueroa and co-founded internationally in 2013 by British South Asian International footballer, Kashif Siddiqi.
FFP has been active for over a decade building a unique platform of neutrality and dialogue. Siddiqi, moved by the great work of Figueroa, based his vision on the spirit of what had been achieved in the Americas, formed a new brand with global relevance and propelled this great initiative internationally with an aim to reconcile humanity.
The movement has set out to harness the power of football to unite and create greater understanding between people, communities and governments. Late last year, Siddiqi received the Humanitarian Award from Esquire Middle East magazine, in recognition of his work with FPP.For all the latest Sport news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.