Abbas Khan: the trailblazing football official striving to break down barriers

<span>Photograph: Ian Stephen/ProSports/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Ian Stephen/ProSports/Shutterstock

“Seeing a Muslim on the television, or at a live game, will hopefully strive to highlight to other young children, both Muslim and non-Muslim, to feel as though there are no barriers to them being involved in the professional game,” says the assistant referee Abbas Khan when asked about being a role model for the next generation of match officials who are Muslim. “A large part of my religion is to serve my community and becoming a match official is an incredible opportunity to do that.”

Khan, an assistant referee from Leicestershire, has been officiating games in League One and League Two for six seasons and is determined to demonstrate that the sky is the limit for other officials from ethnic minority backgrounds.

He is one of 42 officials participating in an elite referee development plan that aims, among other things, to open the pipeline from the grassroots to the professional game for officials from underrepresented backgrounds. The project is overseen by the Professional Game Match Officials Ltd (PGMOL) and supported by the Premier League, Football Association and English Football League.

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The initial cohort of 28 (30% of which are of Black, Asian or mixed heritage) were given more than 250 opportunities at higher levels during 2022-23 season. Those now primarily operating at a higher level now include Akil Howson, Sam Allison, Rebecca Welch, Farai Hallam and Emily Heaslip.

“It is incredibly important for these professional organisations to commit to diversifying their workforces to help to break down barriers to success,” Khan says. “Not only religiously, but also, ethnically, I have faced many barriers in my life. Growing up, I have been victimised by large groups where I have inevitably been outnumbered, in terms of ethnic appearance and religious background.

“Having a more diverse workforce is incredibly important as it naturally encourages those working within it, to be curious, ask questions or others, learn more about each other, and better understand each other’s backgrounds, cultural differences, religious beliefs and way of life.”

PGMOL and the anti-discrimination organisation Kick It Out have announced a partnership under which 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 take part in educational sessions via Kick It Out’s online platform, The Academy. The next course that officials and staff will take part in is an introduction to Islam and Muslim communities.

PGMOL was the first refereeing organisation to sign up to a Muslim athlete charter and Khan would like clubs to do more to highlight the complexities involved with being a Muslim at the highest levels of the professional game.

“I believe that the biggest barriers at clubs for Muslim officials are prayer rooms, or somewhere quiet to pray and reflect before and after a game, as well as clubs’ understanding and support of Ramadan,” he says.

“Clubs should actively be encouraged to promote Ramadan and educate supporters and social media content consumers that Muslims break their fast at hours when there are occasional conflicts with matches. As a result, it should not be seen as an extraordinary event when a Muslim breaks his/her/their fast during matches. But should be considered perfectly normal.”

Khan highlights the power of social media for clubs to show their staff and players breaking their fast. “I believe this would gain more respect from fans, quicker,” he says.

Khan says it is “heartwarming” to see initiatives being run to solve problems and create a more accessible-for-all environment. He will continue to hold organisations accountable and is delighted officials from underrepresented communities are shining in the professional game. “It is something that I never thought I would see in my lifetime,” he says.

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