Why are British-Asians yet to make an impact in the world of Football?

by Jasveer Singh Gill

Friday, November 12th, 2010

I often wonder as I trudge of the pitch after playing football – having fallen out with friends over decisions, knee’s bleeding from sliding across synthetic grass, yet still smiling because of a meaningless win and all this for just under £40 – do the professionals really love the game more than me?

I know they are better players than me, I have watched Match of The Day enough times to realise that.

But I refuse to believe that I have any less passion for the game than, for example, Wayne Rooney. I run my behind off in every game, never shirk a tackle and fly into a rage if things don’t go my way. I am just as committed to winning any match I play in as Rooney is and I have a surgical scar on my knee to prove it.

I can say the same about those I play with too. I have seen broken noses, split heads, broken ankles, dislocated shoulders and a thousand more injuries. And not one of these games was for a trophy or even three points. There were no fans screaming our names. Forget about getting paid to play, we pay to play and I am not talking metaphorically either, I mean real hard earned cash.

I know for a fact there are people like me all over Britain. The difference between us though, is that 90% of the people I play with are British-Asian. So with this amount of passion why didn’t any of us see our football careers progress beyond the Sunday League?

The debate has been around since I was a child and after 15 years of thought I have finally come to two conclusions as to why British Asian’s rarely make a career in professional football.

1)    British-Asian’s ostracise themselves by creating teams that are mainly Asian (either Punjabi, Bengali, Pakistani or mixed)

2)    A professional scout would always choose to watch a team of white/black kids play ahead of an Asian team.

The two entwine to create a vicious circle that has seen any potential talent fall by the wayside.

Now you may not agree with me, in fact lots of the people I spoke to did not but my opinion has been formed after discussing and debating the problem with everyone from your average football fan to world renowned football coaches.

The second part of my conclusion may sound like I am accusing scouts of racism but this is not the case. For example, you have a group of Black 100metre runners and a group of Oriental 100metre runners – who would you expect to be better? Therefore you can not begrudge any scout for choosing not to watch an Asian team play football and herein lies the problem.

Some people do not even acknowledge there is a problem. To them I state the fact that there are more Asians then Blacks in England (2.7% of the population is Asian while 1.6% is Black).
Nevertheless no one is expecting to see the day when every team in the Premiership has a British-Asian, even though Blacks have a disproportionately high number of football professionals. However, since the 1970’s British-Asians have been playing and following the beautiful game just as avidly as any other race in the land. So to think that you can count the number of Asian players who have made a career in the game on one hand is pitiful.

The self-segregation by certain British-Asian amateur clubs is self evident. It is understandable that, for example, a team from Illford may be full of Indians. However, adding a religious tag to the club is unnecessary, as some clubs do by adding Khalsa where most clubs have Town/United/City etc. You may even see religious symbols, such as the Star and Moon for Islam, used as club badges. The fact that the clubs try to represent a religion mean they are trying to be more than a football club, something which may put-off players wanting to join or even worse, scouts thinking of watching the team play.

On a different tangent there is a tendency for British-Asian coaches to keep the best Asian players for themselves to build a team around, rather then encouraging them to join better teams or professional academies.

“I tell Asian coaches all the time, never keep your best players in one environment” Taf Islam, Arsenal Under-14 coach said. “They won’t learn to adapt and it will hinder their development.”

Taf certainly knows about development having played for Arsenal from under-13s right up to the reserve team until injury ruined any chances of his break through. Taf does not believe however, that his Bengali roots hindered his chances of making it.

“At Arsenal we don’t care about colour, if anyone is good enough they can make it. A scout may not go to watch an Asian team but maybe the problem is an Asian kid will not be happy breaking out of his environment to go somewhere a white kid would. More Asian’s need to start playing in the academies and if they drop out they should look to join non-league teams. We need to start from the bottom and work our way up.”

Netan Sansara, Walsall FC left-back and the first player of Indian heritage to represent England (Under-19) spoke on his fear about British-Asian self-segregation.

“Asian leagues or clubs don’t help the development of our (British-Asian’s) football. If you only play with a certain group of players then you restrict yourself from progressing. You should mix with every race to help your football skills take off. I come from a mainly white area so was used to playing with white kids most of my life, so I had no problem fitting in at Walsall.”

Fitting in is a key issue for British-Asians. As a youth I know some Asians who were invited to go and train with Brentford but never went back after their first day, simply because they did not feel comfortable in the environment. It would be a fair statement to say that many young British-Asians have failed to produce their best football away from their home environment. This could be because being the only Asian in a youth football team is a bit like being the only black guy in a horror film – you know you are the one who is not going to make it.

This feeling though of being ‘the only Asian’ in a team only manifests itself after being in an all Asian team. Two more Asian youngsters who are making ripples in the world of football significantly reveal that they also started off by joining a team of all white kids at a young age and were encouraged by their fathers to integrate.

Joshua Shama is currently excelling for Reading’s under-14’s side and recently won the Junior Asian Sports Personality of the year award “My parents have given me a lot of support in my career, especially my father. He drives me to every game and practice. He started me off by getting me to join a team when I was 8. I was the only Asian in the team then and still am now but it is no problem.”

Hanif Hussain is a 9-year-old from Bradford who has already played for Scunthorpe and Bradford City. His performances have had scouts from Liverpool FC checking on his progress and this is all down to his father, Khalid, who was once on Bradford City’s books.

“I got my son straight into a white team aged 7 so race is not even an issue, they are just kids who want to play football.”

Khalid is one of the few, alongside Taf Islam, who decided to try and stay in the game. He is now the first and only British-Asian scout for a professional club and is actively trying to encourage young Asians to pursue a career in football.

“As a scout I know I have seen Asian players with the ability to make it that never did. So now I try to make sure that any potential players get the chance to make it. We have a deal with the local community that every year we take 18 Asian players to go and train with Bradford and play our youth team. Now Leeds, Blackburn and even Man Utd are showing interest in this scheme.”

One man who knows something about Asian football is the current manager of Thailand Peter Reid and he for one is certain that it is just a matter of time.

“It takes time for players to break through and British-Asian’s only need time. The ability is there and I know that for a fact. I get about a lot and watch lots of British-Asian players so I know they can play. I would not say that a scout would not go to watch an Asian team because football is such a global market nowadays that any club would love to have a young Asian star on their books. A scout will recommend whoever is best. The young Asian footballers just need to get into the academies and persevere.”

Some ignorant football fans simply claim that no British-Asian players have been good enough to make it on-the-whole and cite the state of the game back in India as an example of this. It is hard to defend to when your national side once lost to Brentford FC. Signs are though that the game is genuinely growing. India has revolutionised its domestic football league in a manor similar to the Premiership, big-money television deals and all.

There are also South Asian professional footballers cropping up in clubs all over the world from Norway to Australia giving hope we may see another Vikesh Dhorasoo again. The Bundesliga will also welcome the first manager with Indian roots next season in Robin Dutt who got Freiburg promoted.

All the typical Asian parents who saw sport as nothing other then a waste of time are slowly turning into grandparents. A new generation of British-Asian fathers will definitely be actively pushing their sons towards a career in the game. It seems to be happening as clubs enthusiastically welcome Asian youngsters now and we are even seeing X-Factor style British-Asian footballer competitions crop up.

It seems then that the key to British-Asian players making it is integration from an early age so race does not even become an issue. Segregating ourselves is a major barrier. Of course it makes us proud to see a team of Asians win the local league or cup (well done Old Southall FC!) but if we genuinely wish our youngsters to have a future in the game we must push them towards joining academies rather then his uncle’s football team and hopefully within the next 10-15 years we will see a greater influx of British-Asian footballers.

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  • Sam Wheatley

    A very interesting post. I read various interviews with Zesh Rehman who is obviously aware of these issues and has begun his community cohesion program in order to get kids of all ethnicities playing together. Rehman is sort of exemplary in terms of everything you’ve been saying. I seem to remember Harpal Singh in the Leeds youth squad (when they were in the Premier League) as well, although his career has taken something of a downward trajectory.

    On the other hand, as much as it is nice to be idealistic, there is probably still some institutional racism. What would be helpful in this instance is an influx of more British-Asian professional coaches and scouts; then we should a significant shift in favour of professionally employed footballers that better represent modern British society.

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