If you walked past me, I look like your average British South Asian Muslim woman, but that’s as far as it goes when it comes to identifying me. I may look like your stereotypical Asian Muslim women because my head is covered by a headscarf, but I am a football coach who lives in her training kit, has more trainers than high heels and loves nothing better than watching Match Of The Day instead of going out with her friends and family on Saturday night... let me introduce you to the REAL Annie Zaidi.
My love for the game started when I was a little girl and having two older brothers it was inevitable that I became a tomboy. Playing football in the back garden started of just wanting to hang out with my brothers but slowly it developed into a passion, now 20 years on my passion is becoming my career. Believe me when I say that to get this far it has literally cost blood, sweat and tears: my story is not one to make you feel sorry for me for the trials and tribulations I have - and still am - experiencing as a female, Asian football coach, but a story of empowerment and determination of a coach fighting for equality and respect in a male dominant industry.
Being an Asian Muslim woman in a headscarf trying to make it in this industry is the most challenging experience in my life. Not only have I been ostracised from the wider community - which was expected - but sadly I have been ostracised by parts of my own Asian community too, as they saw coaching both men and women as a taboo; some regard me as a bad role model within the Asian community. One thing people don’t know about me is that I am a very focused, headstrong determined chic who strives better when people tell me I can’t or that I shouldn’t, hence my motto being: They can take my ball away from me but they can’t take away my passion!
Whilst studying at Durham University I took my first ever training session with a group of 16-24 year old Geordie lads in North Benwell, one of the most deprived areas of Newcastle. Imagine me, a 5ft 2in, Asian, Muslim, female coach carrying a ball bag across to the Astroturf, being watched by 40 stocky Georgie lads. They were in disbelief when they found out I was their coach for the next 12 weeks, twice a week for a two hour session: it was literally a Kodak moment. The more I tried to get myself involved with them the more I got knocked down - bruised legs, elbows to my ribs - but the more I got knocked down the quicker and more determined I got back up. The more I returned for the coaching sessions the greater the respect for me grew until I knew the lads had my back. The experience made me realise that football was not just a game but a powerful tool that helps break down social barriers and create community cohesion. Through my determination, resilience and love for the game, over the 12 weeks they came to see me as Coach Annie, and my new identity was formed.
Being a female coach, to earn respect I knew I had to take my coaching badges and show everyone how serious I was. I began managing a Sunday league team, a dream every girl wishes for: waking up on cold wet mornings, setting up training session in the local park and preparing for match days on a cold, frosty Sunday morning. Out of 400 managers I was the ONLY woman which ruffled a few feathers, especially when my team gained 3 points on match day: not only had they lost a game, but losing to a female-managed team hurt them more.
As much as I loved managing a Sunday league team, I had to step down: the harsh reality was that I was experiencing racism and sexism from opposition team managers and parents most Sunday morning. The day I decided it was time to step down was when the opposition manager not only taunted me throughout the game, but refused to shake my hand before and after the game. This could have been because I was female or because I was Asian - or both - but either way it was the ugly side of football that I was experiencing, and I wasn’t going to let it ruin my passion for the game.
Since then I’ve been appointed as Chair of the Black & Asian Coaches Association (BACA) and I am an Ambassador for Sporting Equals and for Slenky: these three national organisation have been my backbone when no one else wanted to support my coaching pathway. Without my mentor Wallace Hermitt (Co-founder of BACA) I would not have achieved all that I have as he saw potential in me when no one else did. I am honoured to have both QPR Director Les Ferdinand and QPR Manager Chris Ramsey supporting me with my UEFA B license and offering advice, as they have both experienced everything that I have. If it wasn’t for them and my other heroes including Chris Houghton, Hope Powell, Chris Powell, Noel Blake, I wouldn’t have been able to get this far. They have paved the way before me, and in turn I feel a responsibility to break boundaries and smooth the way for aspiring female coaches. Thanks to their support, I am undertaking my UEFA B License, and will be the first South Asian female to achieve this prestigious coaching qualification.
My proudest moment so far has been coaching at Leicester City Football Club’s Centre of Excellence, which many people told me would just be a dream as an Asian Muslim wearing a hijab wasn’t an image a professional club would want to promote. There is something special about football the moment the ball touches my soul, it makes me come alive. The training ground is where I belong and feel the safest: there are no barriers or labels, just Coach Annie!
Annie Zaidi is a Youth Engagement Coach at Leicester City Football Club Community Trust. A rare female role model in the male-dominated world of football, Annie is a Muslim coach with Leicester City Football Club and the first ever South Asian woman to get a level two coaching certificate from the Football Association.
Annie has been shortlisted in the Sport category for this year’s Asian Women of Achievement Award for her work training aspiring footballers and encouraging disadvantaged young people into the sport.