Football is one of the most popular sports globally, yet opportunities for young people seem to be few and far between, but for Farai Hallam, an unexpected opportunity created a new direction for him after his football career.
Farai was the bright-eyed nine year old boy who didn’t know where football would take him more than a decade ago and today; he has become the National Referee Manager for the Football Association (FA).
The 27 year old former Stevenage player supports The FA Centre of Refereeing Excellence (CORE), which identifies referees with the potential and opportunity to progress through the FA pyramid, offering them the best opportunity to fulfil their potential as early as possible.
Starting out in goal, he did not play outfield until he was 11, going on to represent his local district, then the county, before playing at Academy level for Norwich City at 15.
“Starting at 9 is late nowadays, as most begin at two or three. However, my football journey started with the support of my parents and our church. I was part of the youth club as well.
“Football then became my job at 17, when I signed a two year contract with Stevenage F.C, who were in League 2 at the time.”
Farai played for Stevenage for two years and spent a season in Spain, describing it as the best year of his life, where he learnt a lot about himself, a different culture and what it really meant to be away from home for so long.
“Playing football at a professional level is something so many boys and girls’ dream of doing, but only a small percentage get to experience,” he said.
“While the three years I played were some of the best years of my life, the challenges were both physical and mental – the relentless nature of professional sport – and the need to be elite every hour of every day can be a lot when you are still a young person,” he added.
Farai said that despite the challenges, there were endless highlights that afforded him the opportunity to be part of something bigger than he ever imagined.
“During my time at Stevenage and in Spain, I matured beyond my years and gained skills that have contributed to my current success. The game definitely taught me discipline, boosted my confidence, but above all, has given me an invaluable work ethic.”
Proud of his heritage
Born to an English dad and Zimbabwean mum, Farai was raised in England and says he is proud of being able to experience different cultures through his parents.
“I am grateful that I have had the opportunity to learn about my English and Zimbabwean heritage. Having been raised in England, it would have been easy to just identify with my father’s culture but I am proud that my mum taught me about hers, and proud that my parents have instilled in me the value of family, respect and a set of beliefs I am able to apply to my daily life.”
With a fascination for trains and geography, he said that if he had not pursed football he would have worked in travel or transport.
“My parents were big on education when I was growing up and I spent a lot of time focusing on my studies alongside my football, which I think grounded me and prepared me for where I am today.”
Having played for Team Zimbabwe UK for more than a year, Farai said that he was honoured to be selected but was even more grateful for the “camaraderie and unity of the group”.
“Team Zimbabwe UK, was a much better set up than I thought and to see so many people from Zimbabwe and of Zimbabwean heritage with football ability, was really something.
“The team was fantastic. There were so many people going above and beyond to give the team the best opportunity possible and I’d love to work with the team in the future whether I am coaching or through mentorship.”
Opportunity with the Football Association
Farai’s opportunity with the FA came shortly after he finished his stint in Spain, adding that there were plans to play in America on a soccer scholarship but while waiting for that, an apprenticeship with the football governing body came up.
“I never expected to get a job with the FA, but I had to look at what my prospects were long-term and when I got the apprenticeship, working for the most reputable organisation in the world was perfect because it combined my passion for the sport, a chance at a promising career as well as room to develop as a person.”
Farai said that working for the FA for the last seven years has been rewarding and a learning experience, especially navigating the public’s misconceptions of the establishment.
“The FA is perceived in a different light to the average man, woman, or individual out there, especially when it comes to equality and diversity but I work with some of the most committed and hardworking colleagues, who go above and beyond to improve football in England.
“Football has a lot of stakeholders, a lot of interested parties and lots of media coverage which means there are a lot of opinions on what they should be doing.
“While there is still a long way to go in the organisation, and across football as a whole, we are seeing an increase number of women in the organisation, as well ethnic minorities that represent the FA at various levels. However, there is a need for diversity in leadership positions and they have recognised that and are working on bridging that gap.”
Career prospects with the FA
Landing a job in football is often a challenge. In part, this is because of the huge popularity of the game, with hundreds of applications being received and jobs being snapped up instantly. However, there also appears to be a lack of information surrounding the industry which many young people are pursuing.
Farai said that apprenticeships are a fantastic and an alternative route to starting a career and added that the FA are always offering opportunities for apprentices in the whole organisation, from refereeing to prospects in marketing and communications.
“The FA is really good when it comes to offering positions for apprentices to gain experience and understanding of the organisation and football industry.
“As you can imagine, there is a long list of people wanting to work in football and competition is very high, so often you need to have a slight advantage or be able to stand out from the crowd,” he said.
“From a referee point-of-view, referees in the National League System want to progress – it matters to them whether they get things right or wrong. As a result, three or four days before, they are preparing for a game on a Saturday, while two or three days after the game they are analysing to improve and that is the relentless part of working in the sector,” he added.
How coronavirus has affected football in 2020
Meanwhile, following the widespread suspension of football and the postponement of Euro 2020 and Euro 2021, the coronavirus has impacted the international football calendar and the game could be affected over the next two or three years.
There are plans to fit three – rather than two – fixtures into international windows this autumn to play Euro 2020 qualifiers and Nations League fixtures but a formal announcement is yet to be made.
“I don’t think anyone planned for what we are going through globally but what is important, is keeping everyone around the world safe and healthy,” said Farai.
“Football, as with so many other businesses will be hit financially, which will take some time and adapting to get back to some form of normality. The way in which football is administered and operated will have to change, at least in the short-term but fixtures can only resume once we know that it is safe.”
His vision for African football
Throughout Africa, high hopes and huge expectations are overshadowed by insufficient national resources, which are widely subject to corruption and stealing.
National football associations become sources of personal income, and people fight to become association presidents – not because they are experts in football development, but simply to have leverage over money. This over the years has resulted in a few African teams, especially sub-Saharan ones, not progressing beyond the last 16 at World Cup level or advancing beyond the continental level.
Moreover, there is phenomenal talent that goes largely unrecognised due to the lack of effective pipelines for player development.
Farai said that Africa has untapped resources and with sufficient capital and development in infrastructure more talent could come out of Africa as the world has only seen a small percentage.
“Football in Africa has so much potential, not just with players, so many of whom we see at the top of world football now, but in all areas.
“The Confederation of Football does not have an easy job. The geographical size of the continent must be a challenge. The varying nature of countries, as well as the financial restrictions in comparison to Europe is also a disadvantage. However, the aim, as a starting point, should be offering opportunities to boys and girls from a young age to play football.
“This increases the development of young people, offers them skills through a sport and for the game, as well as increases the talent pool of sportsmen and women that are involved,” he added.
Farai said that football has the ability to unite countries and has been witnessed in a number of African countries.
“The synergy in African football is admirable. The sport brings nations together. More importantly, it will help young girls and boys develop discipline and an education, which is paramount to anything.”
Vision for Zimbabwe
Aside from the day-to-day, Farai is currently doing some work with the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA).
“Working in football and having an opportunity to develop the nations game is such an experience and reminds me daily why I fell in love with football, and helps me understand what the reality is at all levels.”
Farai said that his wider vision is to get involved in work with African football and more specifically Zimbabwe in future.
“Zimbabwe is close to my heart and I will always have an affiliation and love for the country. I would also like to explore opening a football academy there but that is in the distant future.”
“My aim is to represent as many people as possible. It is easy to become detached from reality, but we can’t forget that ultimately, it is about young boys and girls, men and women taking part in a game we all love.”
Farai, whose encouragement to young boys and girls is to work hard and to never give up, added that the road to success won’t happen overnight.
“Be committed, be hard working and don’t give up. Every day is an opportunity to learn and improve. You will get setbacks but keep pushing and make your education a priority, so that you have something to fall back on in the future.”