This month marked a landmark moment for academy graduate Brandon Khela as he became the first British South Asian player to sign a professional contract at Birmingham City.
The midfielder played for Birmingham’s U18 last season but his talents were recognised long before when he joined the club at 8-years-old. “Since the age of three I’ve always kicked a ball around and when I joined the academy I saw a career pathway here and my dream was always to be a footballer.”
The news for the 17-year-old about his historic signing was overwhelming. “When the news first came out it didn’t sink in. But now I’m just looking to play football and make a mark because once I’m out there I’ll let the football do the talking. It’s good to be the first and be proud of where you’re from.”
In March 2021 the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) launched its Asian Inclusion Mentoring Scheme (AIMS), a network focused on enhancing the experience of Asian footballers from grassroots through to a professional level. The scheme involves mentoring, PFA-facilitated meetings and workshops and educating club staff around important cultural issues.
Khela joined the scheme last season and the network has been beneficial to him on a number of levels. “I’ve been able to meet so many other footballers from around the country. I didn’t know there were that many South Asians in football, especially here in England. It’s a great platform to be involved in and I get mentored by older players on the programme.”
While South Asian representation within football has been scarce we have been seeing a steady change over the past few years. Zidane Iqbal signed a new long-term contract to remain at Old Trafford this season. He also made history last December when he appeared in the Champions League game against Young Boys and became the first British South Asian to play for Manchester United.
Both players have been part of the AIMS scheme and while it has only been running for two years, Iqbal and Khela are prime examples of the success that comes from providing nurturing environments for minority communities.
For Khela the support he has received through the AIMS programme has been integral to his growth. “It’s so important to have that network of other players because they’ve been through the ranks or are going through them with you. They have more experience, expertise and knowledge than me, so it’s important I communicate and learn from them.”
Riz Rehman, the Player Inclusion Executive at the PFA, explained that Khela had been a key member of the AIMS programme. “When you meet and talk to young people about their journey and why they want to be footballers, Brandon had this glint in his eye and I knew that everything I was saying, he was taking note of it.”
“He’s gone from strength to strength and I’m delighted for him and his family. He’s at a great club that gives young players a chance and I have no doubt that he will go on to break even more barriers and create even more history as well.”
Khela remains grateful for the support networks that he has received and hopes to emulate this in his own work. “I want to mentor other players all throughout my career, not just South Asian players but anyone I can help.”
Earlier this year, the Birmingham professional also made his debut for the U17’s England team. Khela said: “To play for your country is a real honour. It was great to put on that shirt with pride and play out there. There’s not been many South Asians that have played for their country so I want to make that step.”
Khela also thanked his parents for their continued support. “Without them, I don’t think I’d be here. I can’t thank them enough for the amount of years my mum and dad spent dropping me off and picking me up. When times are high they are there to celebrate with me and when things have been difficult, they have always been there to pick me up.”
The Punjabi teenager recognised the milestone he reached and while he continues to be proud of his heritage, Khela said: “I want to be recognised for my talent. I’m proud of where I’m from obviously and there are not many South Asians playing in football but that’s not the only thing about me. The South Asian fanbase is huge in football and with their support we can go a long way. I want young kids to know they have a chance and to believe it.”
Follow Brandon’s journey here.
Follow Riz Rehman here.