“I learned English mostly by watching Match of the Day,” says Shaygan Banisaeid. “I remember the first word that I learned was ‘crossbar’ because someone showed me the crossbar challenge on TV. Football has always played a big part in my life since I was a kid.”
Less than two years since he left his family in Iran to begin a new life in Europe, those linguistic skills have certainly proved invaluable for Banisaeid. This month the 22-year-old started as a youth development coach for Fulham’s foundation having began volunteering on the Football Welcomes programme in Middlesbrough, where he also worked as a coach for the foundation.
“If I wasn’t given that first opportunity to coach at Middlesbrough then I may have ended up in another career,” he says. “But Football Welcomes gave me the chance to realise my dream of becoming a coach. I got the experience and I found courage in myself to try to follow my passion. It also helped me make loads of good friend and connections in football.”
Throughout April the Football Welcomes Community Project has been running football sessions for women and men who are refugees or seeking asylum. It is done in conjunction with partners from several clubs, including Aston Villa, Leicester City and Liverpool. They also offer English classes and provide training in coaching or refereeing, with Banisaeid proof that the initiatives can lead to a career. A promising defender who represented a club in the top division at youth level, he found his chances were limited in his homeland.
“Football in Iran is not as professional as in England and there are many people who want to take advantage of young players,” he says. “I always wished when I was younger that there were better academies so I or many other players who were much more talented than me would have a better chance to make it professionally.”
Banisaeid became interested in coaching at the age of 15 when a groin injury sidelined him for several months. “I started assisting the coaches and it gave me a chance to observe them. I tried to analyse what they were doing and it gave me a lot of excitement. I thought: ‘I want to be a football coach rather than a player.’”
Although Banisaeid is working for a Premier League club and waiting to take his Level 2 coaching course, his journey to London via Middlesbrough wasn’t exactly planned.
“I had some difficulties in Iran,” he says. “Many things happened that changed my life and brought me here. It wasn’t my first intention because I didn’t plan it but I’m very happy now. It’s really difficult being away from my family and my parents. We haven’t seen each other for two years now but hopefully we will be able to arrange something soon. My family are a bit more satisfied because I can now follow my passion and do what I love.”
The lockdown meant he had to remain patient as all grassroots football was suspended until the start of April, with Football Welcomes – which usually includes refugees being given free match tickets – forced to change tack by concentrating on community events. According to the organisers Amnesty International, the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on refugees, with many asylum seekers stuck in overcrowded accommodation where social distancing is impossible. “Participants in the programme have been very keen to get back on to the pitch, with all the mental and physical health benefits playing football can bring,” says Amnesty’s Naomi Westland.
Banisaeid, who moved to London in February, has been desperate to begin the next chapter of his fledgling career. “I’m not as excited as I was two months ago because it’s been a long process,” he says. “I’m really proud. This is the objective that I had a year ago and now I have achieved it. Becoming a manager is one of my goals – it’s a really difficult goal but I am really passionate about it. I’m just trying to enjoy every second of the journey and see where it takes me.”
He adds: “When I’m coaching, I always tell the kids about the difficulties I’ve had to go through. Many people here have a lot of opportunities that are available to them but they don’t use them so I try to make them realise what is possible if you put in the effort.”
As for his dream job in management, there is only one option. “I have followed AC Milan since the last days of Paolo Maldini so it would have to be them. But they are supposed to be moving to a new stadium soon so I was thinking I need to hurry up if I want to coach them in San Siro …!”