In the rough, tough and frequently unforgiving world that is football, Sohail Rehman’s story is an inspiration to us all.
It’s a story of courage, determination and passion; one that lifts the heart, invigorates the soul and fundamentally makes us all realise that, despite the attitude of many, football truly isn’t a matter of life and death.
Sohail is just 21, and he is the first wheelchair-bound, fully qualified football coach in the world. This week it was my pleasure to have him as a guest in Liverpool for the launch of my new book on Leo Messi.
He suffers from a disability called spinal muscular atrophy. His real love was always football and, despite enormous difficulty, he played up to the age of 13 with his friends in the street and for a local team.
Then, shortly afterwards, came the shattering news when specialists told him that his illness had progressed so far that he would, within a year, be wheelchair-bound. Sohail described it as the “worst conversation of my life."
Having spent some time questioning life’s fairness, Sohail decided that he had spent long enough fretting about his plight and, at the age of 16, went out to try to make the impossible, possible. He took his coaching badges, doing his Level 1 and 2 before going on to coach his local club’s under-10 team.
When asked by one of his youngsters, “Coach, don’t you ever feel like kicking the ball?” he replied, “You always have to be grateful for what you have. I might not be able to kick the ball, but at least I can see it…there’s always someone out there who struggles more than you.”
In 2012—by now far too busy to waste any time feeling sorry for himself—he set about the creation of a scheme to develop young players, to give them the chance that nature had so cruelly denied him. The organisation Class on Grass was born.
The aim of the organisation is to help children enjoy sport. Class on Grass aims to get children and their parents off the couch and into sport, using a style of fun, friendly, focused, skills-based coaching.
They believe enjoyment and a pressure-free environment are the keys to unlocking potential within all youngsters. Through structured football fun they have developed a range of sports and social skills to provide a great experience for young people and their parents.
As Sohail is a member of the Manchester United Disabled Supporters' Association, news of his work reached the ears of then-manager Sir Alex Ferguson, who wrote to him.
In his letter, Sir Alex said, “I am writing to congratulate you on passing your coaching badges and becoming a qualified football coach. It never ceases to amaze me the enthusiasm and effort people put into the game and more importantly in giving their time. May I take this opportunity to wish you all the best for the remainder of the season. Well done!”
Sohail is also a massive Real Madrid and Cristiano Ronaldo fan. His dream is to be able to watch his idol play at the Santiago Bernabeu and then get to meet both him and the rest of the players who have inspired him throughout his life.
And with the grit and determination that have been the hallmark of Sohail Rehman’s life to date, I wouldn’t bet against him achieving it.
All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.