Kashif Siddiqi has spent much of his career building barriers.
But the 30-year-old defender, whose former club Northampton Town visits Bramall Lane tomorrow, is also dedicated to knocking them down after co-founding Football for Peace, a diplomatic sports movement which uses the beautiful game to bridge social divides.
“If you don’t pass to a team mate then you won’t achieve anything,” Siddiqi told The Star. “A team that doesn’t work together will never make any progress at all. The same goes for humanity. I feel like governments have hit a wall in the fight against isolation and extremism. I want to show them that sport is an avenue to explore.”
Siddiqi, a British Muslim born in Hammersmith, has first hand experience of how negative stereotypes, marginalisation and lack of understanding can affect peoples’ lives. His mother was a single-parent when she arrived in England from Uganda and, by Siddiqi’s own admission, overcame numerous obstacles as she fought to raise a family over four thousand miles from home. Sixfields, where Siddiqi signed a professional contract in 2013, also proved to be a challenging environment and perhaps, in some small way, helped sow the seeds for the work he is overseeing now.
“When I first went there, three players would not acknowledge me,” Siddiqi continued. “They thought I must be another Messi because of my background or, otherwise, I wouldn’t have been brought onboard. I was thinking ‘why can’t I just be a footballer like anybody else?’ But everything changed as we spent time with each other and got along.”
Football for Peace employs similar principles to foster, according to its mission statement, “greater understanding between people, communities and governments.”
The ‘Cities for Peace’ programme, which brings together young people from different cultures and faiths, is the most visible aspect of the charity’s work in this country after being launched in Birmingham.
“Isolation, for me, is so dangerous,” Siddiqi, confirming Sheffield is being viewed as another possible destination, said. “It is the root cause for many of the issues we see in the media today. We bring children together and they play football in mixed teams. We also educate them in things like conflict resolution as well. Then 40 kids from 10 different schools go to bespoke workshops and become young ‘ambassadors for peace and community role models.’ If people mix, and football is a wonderful vehicle for helping them do that, then quite often misunderstandings and other issued caused by isolation are solved.”
“We chose Birmingham to begin with because of the Trojan Horse case that was in the news at the time,” Siddiqi added. “The school, which had been at the centre of things, was chosen as the hub. Over the next three years we want to establish 10 cities for peace and create more young peace ambassadors with Sheffield being one of those.”
Football for Peace, whose efforts have been endorsed by the likes of Pele, Ronaldinho and HRH The Duke of Cambridge, also undertake projects overseas.
“Kozikhode, in Kerala, India, is also a city for peace,” Siddiqi explained. “Mum was very heavily involved in that. There, we provided kit for school girls and they ended-up coaching boys too. For many years, culturally, women in south Asia have found themselves with less opportunities and forced to make life-defining decisions at a very young age.”
Siddiqi, who co-founded Football for Peace with Chile legend Elías Figueroa, is searching for a new club after leaving Northampton. Having spent time on Arsenal’s books as a teenager, he played college football in the United States while studying for an international relations degree before returning to North America following an injury hit spell in Dubai. Siddiqi, who recently unveiled plans for a ‘peace match’ between Muslims and Catholics in St Peter’s Square, The Vatican, has also been capped at international level by Pakistan.
“When you go there, the kids are now playing football instead of cricket in many of the alleyways,” he said. “There’s huge interest in the game. I took part in the qualifiers for the 2008 Beijing Olympics and also the Asian Cup qualifiers. Hopefully, we can inspire more British Asian footballers and their parents to become involved in the game and give them the belief to help achieve their goals. Because the talent is there.”
“My mother’s struggle has taught me that problems can flourish when people are isolated from each other,” Siddiqi added. “I feel sports, especially football, have the power to bring communities together rather than dividing them. This is why I am so driven to create environments through Football for Peace, where we can promote people to people diplomacy.”