Maziar Kouhyar fell out of football and ended up working first at KFC, then as a car salesman
Five years ago, Maziar Kouhyar made his debut for Walsall and became the first Afghan to play professionally in Great Britain.
However, due to injury, lack of opportunity, and after suffering alleged racial abuse, Kouhyar was released in 2019.
His prospects as a footballer were bleak and to make matters worse, a global pandemic was on the horizon.
He found work in KFC, then as a car salesman – but neither could compare to football.
But on Saturday, the 23-year-old is due to play just his second game for National League North side Hereford against Hornchurch FC from the Isthmian League Premier Division at Wembley – in the FA Trophy Final (16:15 BST).
"It's come very quickly and it was very unexpected but it's a dream come true," says Kouhyar.
"It began with my ACL [anterior cruciate ligament injury]. I was out for 10 months and then, when I got back from injury, it was difficult and I got released. Lockdown didn't help and I didn't know what to do.
"I was working in KFC, I worked there for two weeks. After that I was at Toyota selling cars. I was thinking football is maybe done for me now.
"Playing five-a-side with my friends made the love of football slowly come back, then the trial at Hereford, playing the first training game, scoring a goal.
"It just kind of unlocked the love for football again. I'm just glad that I can finally chase my dream again."
Kouhyar got his Hereford trial through athlete management company Be., launched by Razi Hassan with the aim of increasing participation in sport among under-represented communities.
Kouhyar made 21 appearances for Walsall before being released in 2019
Last year, a national poll conducted by Beyond Entertainment and the Football Supporters' Association (FSA) found that out of 4,000 professional footballers in the UK, only 10 were British Asian – making up 0.25% despite representing 7% of people in the UK.
And in a further FSA survey of 500 football fans, 64% felt the small number of British Asians playing professionally "shamed" football.
"Given Maz was at such a low point at the prospect his football career might be over when we met him, we could not be prouder to have helped him back into the game" Hassan said.
"We are talking to the Football Association and a few clubs, from the Premier League down the leagues, about how we can help increase representation of under-represented communities on and off the pitch. But we cannot do this alone, it must be a concerted effort by the whole of football."
Kouhyar added: "When you're playing, when you're training you don't really think about it. But if it does encourage British Asians or inspire them then that's what comes along with it.
"Even if it's any footballer from humble beginnings – if I can inspire them it's a positive."
Joshua Gowling – The Boss
Hereford manager Joshua Gowling signed Kouhyar in March earlier this year
Kouhyar's successful trial at Hereford was overseen by manager Joshua Gowling, 37, who took charge of the club last year.
If Hereford lift the trophy on Saturday, Gowling would become only the second black British manager to win in a Wembley final. The first was Paul Ince, who won the Johnstone's Paint Trophy with MK Dons in 2008.
Gowling relates to Maz. He was released as a youngster by West Bromwich Albion in 2003.
"It's sad that we're in a period where you can count on your hands how many Asian players there are in football," says Gowling.
'It's a problem isn't it? Let's be honest. It's the same with me as a manager. I think there's only several other managers that look like me."
As a player, Gowling was eventually given a chance in Denmark after securing a trial for Herfolge Boldklub and played for a number of clubs in the Football League.
Gowling spent time in Denmark before signing for Bournemouth in 2005
"I would like to see more support for players," he says. "Young players get released but also footballers come to the end of their careers. What about the psychological side of things? What about the identity loss?
"If I can open a door for someone then I'm going to. Especially with Maz … he's good with his feet, he's technically good. He's played in the Football League, so he's going to help us massively"
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Kouhyar debuted in Hereford's FA Trophy semi-final win over Woking
Kouhyar says he has benefitted from the atmosphere and culture at Hereford. Gowling – also a trained counsellor with a psychology degree – maintained a focus on team-bonding despite much of Hereford's season being disrupted by Covid-19.
"We build the environment together, the players have an impact on everything we do," says Gowling.
"In lockdown obviously you can't go go-karting or paintballing so we had a few Call of Duty sessions – the team bonding is an opportunity probably for some of the subs to shoot my head off!
"We did some things with virtual reality as well, we did lots of little things in preparation for the final to keep prepared and keep focused.
"I think it's fundamental for us just to go into this competition and show that the things we're doing are working and it's progressing the club forward."
A career revived
Afghanistan's next World Cup 2022 qualifiers are against Bangladesh, Oman and India
For Kouhyar, the outlook is positive. When the dust settles on Hereford's season he will be joining up with the Afghanistan national side for World Cup 2022 qualifiers.
"I think representing your country is a huge thing and the manager has put his trust in me. I think everything's just worked out perfectly," he says.
"I've got Wembley this week, then three-and-a-half weeks with the national team – playing games, getting fit and I'm sure when it comes to pre-season I'm going to hit the ground running."
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