Belgium have English secret weapon at Euro 2020 – who proved worth in Mongolia
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Shadab Iftikhar has a story into football that would be worth a Hollywood movie; it would certainly be better than Goal III.
A normal Preston lad, Iftikhar is heading to the Euro's this summer, but he probably won't be supporting England.
The Lancashire native will be a part of Roberto Martinez's backroom staff for Belgium, and will be eagerly scouting their opponents, which will initially include Russia, Denmark and Finland, who join the Red Devils in Group B.
This is a huge gig for Iftikhar – who has never managed professionally in Europe – but it's fair to say he's earned his shot.
His bizarre but incredible story started after becoming addicted to Football Manager, when he set up his own eight-a-side team in a local league.
From there, he began to coach West Lancashire League club Hesketh Bank's U12's team, and began his journey through the FA coaching badges.
But this is where it gets interesting; desperate to meet then-Wigan manager Martinez, Iftikhar would wait outside the club's training ground until he got the chance to speak to the Spaniard.
A stroke of luck came on his FA Level 2 coaching course when a fellow budding coach worked for the Latics, and introduced him to Martinez.
Barely out of his teens, Iftikhar must have impressed as Martinez had him writing scouting reports about Wigan's opposition. An opportunity he says he'll always be grateful for.
"It says a lot about the man that we was happy to take time out to chat to me at all," the 31-year-old told FourFourTwo.
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"He heard me out and gave me an opportunity to prove myself."
Alongside those duties, which continued into Martinez's time at Everton, Iftikhar moved up to reserve manager at Hesketh Bank, before becoming first team boss and incredibly managing to save them from relegation in 2014.
A bit more experience and a UEFA A Licence in the bag, Iftikhar's coaching career took another twist a couple of years later, as he somehow found himself travelling to Mongolia to take charge of New Mongol Bayangol following their rise to the nation's Premier League.
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He said of the sudden change: "I was in Asda in Preston with my wife on the Friday, and in Ulaanbaatar the following week.
"People said I was crazy, but it just showed how serious I am."
Again, Iftikhar managed to make a real impression with his attention to detail and picking apart opposition tactics, and he was asked to lead the Mongolia national team at the 2017 EAFF East Asian Cup.
A return to the north west of England saw Iftikhar become academy coach for Accrington Stanley, and as he pushes the FA to let him get to work on his UEFA Pro Licence, the ambitious Iftikhar has sat in on two Marcelo Bielsa training sessions at Leeds.
For now though, Iftikhar is focussed on Belgium's Euro 2020 campaign and working under Martinez again.
"My first impression of the setup was of how united it is," he continued. I felt welcome and supported from the beginning, especially by Jesus Seba [head of scouting].
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"I can't state enough how influential Roberto has been for me. He's the very best there is."
But he always has one eye on the future, and hopes his next job might be a little closer to home, though he says he doesn't mind the travel.
"My track record shows I'm not scared to go off the beaten track," Iftikhar rounded off.
"But it would be nice if I didn't have to go to Outer Mongolia this time."
- Euro 2020
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