Zak's story: I wouldn't be where I am without PL Kicks

By Mark Orlovac 11 Apr 2024
Zak El Khalifi, Aston Villa Foundation, Premier League Kicks

How Aston Villa and the Premier League programme has helped one police officer break down barriers since his arrival in the UK

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In 2015, Zak El Khalifi arrived with his family from Turin, Italy, to start a new life in the UK.

It was a difficult time for the then 14-year-old as he couldn't speak English, didn't know anyone and hadn't yet found a place at school.

But that's when he found Premier League Kicks.

"I would take my brother almost every day to Aston Park and we would play football with whoever was there," Zak says. "I got told about a Kicks session with the Aston Villa Foundation and I started going along - that kickstarted everything.

"Being here as a teenager with no English was very hard but the coaches helped me settle in. There were three or four sessions around the Birmingham area and I started to go to pretty much all of them.

"I didn't want to speak to anyone, I just wanted to play football, but the coaches made me loosen up. They made me feel so calm, welcomed and wanted, I was put at ease."

With PL Kicks helping his transition to life in Birmingham, Zak's confidence and language skills began to grow.

He was offered the chance to complete a two-year apprenticeship delivering health and wellbeing projects, which in turn led to him taking a full-time role as a health coach with Aston Villa Foundation.

But he never forgot his roots, as he continued to support participants at his former PL Kicks sessions in a part of Birmingham where many young people have English as a second language.

"Kicks was where I grew up, it's where I belong," he says. "I owe so much to Aston Villa and Kicks. When I first arrived, they supported me, they gave me opportunities and I've always been someone who wants to give back.

"The coaches, the other participants, it's like a big family - that's how they made me feel.

Zak El Khalifi, Aston Villa Foundation, Premier League Kicks

"I remember talking about my personal problems to the coach, they were very helpful and gave me ideas on how to deal with them. That is invaluable."

As part of his time with the Foundation, Zak saw first hand how PL Kicks and its engagement with the police across England and Wales helps break down barriers between participants and those working in law enforcement.

It stirred something in him and, with the help of the Foundation's support and guidance, Zak joined West Mercia police as a PC two years' ago.

"Seeing it from a police officer's point of view, PL Kicks is so important to the local community," he says. "In my role, I get to see a lot of antisocial behaviour, you get to see a lot of kids not having anything to do.

"Having Kicks sessions keeps them busy, keeps them distracted, gives them something to release that energy on, it's something positive."

And as he reflects on his time so far in the UK, Zak is grateful to Aston Villa Foundation for how they have supported him along the way.

"It's hard to express my emotions; it's an incredible journey really," he says. "Being in a position now where I am and trying to give back to Aston Villa by attending community events, just like I was seeing when I was younger, it's come around full circle.

"I would not be where I am now without Premier League Kicks. I told my former coach that it was all because he made me feel welcome on that first session. Being a police officer, basically my dream job, is all thanks to these guys."

Premier League Kicks uses the power of football and sport to inspire young people to reach their potential, in some of the most high-need areas in England and Wales. 

Zak is one of more than half a million people who have benefitted from their involvement in the programme since its launch in 2006.

To date, the Premier League has invested more than £81million in Premier League Kicks through the Premier League Charitable Fund.

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