Former Fulham star Zesh Rehman: Asia was my destiny, Malaysia is my home
At the age of 30, Zesh Rehman has already played for more clubs than most would in a lifetime. Currently at Malaysian Super League [MSL] side Pahang FA, the Pakistan international defender chose to return to Southeast Asia in 2010 after spells at Fulham, Queens Park Rangers and Bradford (as well as a host of loan clubs) and has never regretted the decision.
"When I was first offered a contract to play in Southeast Asia, I hung up the telephone three times before realising it wasn't a prank," Rehman told ESPN FC. "It was late 2010 when I was at Bradford City and I was phoned out of the blue to ask if I was interested in joining Muangthong United in the Thai Premier League.
"Having played in the UK for over a decade and in all four divisions, including the Premier League, I thought England was the only place in the world to seriously pursue a football career.
"Four years, three countries, six trophies and more than 100 games in Asia later, I've definitely changed my mind."
Rehman's desire to play regular football had seen him move out on loan across all the divisions while in England -- to Brighton, Norwich and Blackpool -- but his last temporary spell was made permanent at Bradford City, where he spent 2009-10 as club captain before his association with the club ended as he started a new chapter in his career.
"After receiving that telephone call in 2010 in Yorkshire, I flew to Bangkok a few days later. After looking around Muangthong's facilities, my gut instinct was to sign the contract. The impressive infrastructure of the club wouldn't have been out of place in the Premier League," he said."
"I returned to the UK, tied up a few loose ends and flew back with just 20 [kilos] of luggage, ready for a new challenge. It turned out to be an amazing eye opener into the fascination for football across Southeast Asia, and particularly Thailand.
"I was hooked right away and knew I probably wanted to remain in the Asia region for the rest of my career."
Rehman returned to his roots in Asia, but it was clearly a popular move as others followed soon after.
"Since my time at Muangthong United, the likes of Robbie Fowler and Jay Bothroyd have followed. I am pleased to have blazed a trail for those UK lads to follow and venture into the unknown," he added.
"The following two years were spent in Hong Kong with Kitchee SC. It is a tremendously run club with excellent management, from the boss Ken Ng right down to the kit man, and it has a genuine family atmosphere.
"I won four trophies in my time at Kitchee that was largely down to the astute coaching of FC Barcelona alumni Joseph Gombau -- now at Adelaide United -- and the brilliant team spirit we created.
"Hong Kong was a great place to live. With my daughter being born there, it made the stay even more memorable."
One thing that Rehman's move allowed him to do was to experience the other elements of the Asian game.
"I had two seasons of AFC Cup football with Kitchee, which gave me the pleasure of facing teams from Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Maldives, Kuwait, Indonesia, Jordan and India, providing a wonderful insight into the love for football across Asia," he said.
"The one game I remember clearly was against Seman Padang of Indonesia. It was a 2 p.m. kick-off in blistering 40 degree (Celsius) plus temperatures and the stadium had 45,000 screaming fans jammed in, a full two hours before kick-off. I somehow I got through the 90 minutes without collapsing as the heat was absolute torture.
"Along with my club travels, the past four years have included games for my national team, Pakistan, in Bahrain, Bangladesh, Nepal and the Philippines. Although I was born in Britain, my parents are from Pakistan. It came as no surprise when all my passport pages were filled up with 10 years to spare."
With this experience behind him, Rehman is a figurehead for the Asian game and, still only 30 years old, the defender has more pages of his story yet to write. He made his debut for Malaysian Super League side Pahang in January 2014 and, while the rest of the world was preparing for the World Cup in Brazil, he helped the side to an FA Cup trophy in front of 60,000 fans as Pahang beat Felda United 2-1.
"Throughout my time in Thailand and Hong Kong, I received offers from several clubs in Malaysia; Kelantan, Felda and Sarawak had all come knocking," he said. "I guess I was destined to come here at some point.
"Before I joined Pahang at the end of 2013, I had interest from Singapore, Australia, Iran and Qatar. I chose Malaysia because it had left a great impression on me whenever I played against MSL clubs in AFC Cup games.
"I knew people who had played and coached in Malaysia and received some excellent advice as I chose the right M-League club. Current Kelantan head coach George Boateng, the former Premier League midfielder, was really helpful. He played the 2013 season with Malaysian club T-Team and recommended that I join the East Coast side Pahang because of the phenomenal support at the Darul Makmur Stadium, plus the fact they were the current Malaysia Cup champions.
"My former QPR teammate Damion Stewart was already at Pahang and he spoke highly of the club, the fans and everything associated with the state."
Rehman's time in Malaysia has clearly been a success for all concerned as he has won two trophies so far this season, improved on last season's league position, qualified for the next AFC Cup, and made the quarterfinals of the Malaysia Cup. The defender, too, is loving life at Pahang.
"My family loves life in Kuantan, with the beautiful beaches, waterpark, zoo and town centre with everything we need. It is a refreshing change to the hustle and bustle of busy city life in London, Bangkok and Hong Kong," he said.
"I have really enjoyed my time in Pahang so far under the guidance of coach Zainal Abidin Hassan, a former national team striker who is an absolute legend across Malaysia. I try to embrace every aspect of whatever country I am in. I like to explore the local attractions and muck in with the locals as much as possible.
"My wife had our second baby in Malaysia this year so whenever we end up moving on it will always leave us with such fond memories."
Rehman has clearly had an impact on Asia, and Asia on him. With exciting projects ahead over the coming months and all eyes turning east for the Asian Cup in 2015, the defender is now hoping to make a difference to the next generation of youngsters who want to follow in his footsteps.
"I was lucky enough to accumulate over 200 games in English league football, rubbing shoulders with the elite at Fulham with 30 matches at Premier League level, and enjoying my spells at QPR, Bradford, Brighton, Blackpool and Norwich," he added.
"Away from football, I've dedicated my time to my Zesh Rehman Foundation, which aims to inspire under-represented groups to get into football. That's not just playing but encouraging minorities to try their hand at coaching, refereeing, administration, media and even to get involved as supporters.
"I will be looking to replicate these projects in Southeast Asia in the near future. If life unfolds as I think it will, I could be here for some time yet."