British Asians in football: the struggle for inclusion

Choudhury Leicester
Choudhury Leicester

Six years have passed since the Football Association declared its intent of tackling a social ill that has plagued the game for decades. The FA’s grandeur plans to drastically increase the number of South Asian players and coaches within the national sport have fallen woefully short.

The trail-blazing South Asian icons of the sport from the 50s and 60s such as Roy Smith or Ricky Heppolette can no longer be found in the highest echelons of English football today. As little as 0.3% of the 3,000 British professional footballers are of Asian heritage, despite Asians making up around 8% of the UK population. By the end of the 2018/2019 season, only four British footballers of South Asian descent had played in the Premier League – Neil Taylor, Michael Chopra, Hamza Choudhury and Zesh Rehman.

Recent statistics for the participation and representation from within the British Asian community protrude further than to merely amount to a ‘cause for concern’. Indeed, accusations of institutional racism levelled at English football could not be written off with any degree of certainty. This is a damning indictment for a game that is held dear by such a multicultural fanbase.

But how can this disparity be accounted for? And ultimately, where does responsibility reside in this social predicament?

Popular myths shrouded in a prejudicial undertone that Asians are only interested in cricket or hockey and common falsehoods regarding cultural differences have been dispelled. Research unambiguously demonstrates the prominence of football as an important subculture among South Asian communities.

 A survey conducted by Manchester University found that 60% of British Bangladeshi males regularly participated in football, compared to only 47% of white British males. Daniel Burdsey, a prominent scholar on the issue concluded that “football is an extremely popular and socially significant activity for an increasing number of young British Asian men”.

Figures as such serve to demonstrate the issue at play. If British Asian communities de-prioritised football then any investigation into their lack of representation would be futile. Yet, the fact remains that British Asians have an insatiable appetite for football, but are excluded from the game at all levels.

Former Tottenham Hotspur and England Youth team coach, Taff Rahman, has argued that the lack of Asian role models is a key factor in the under-representation. The coach who is himself of Bangladeshi heritage stated, “there aren’t many British-born South Asian (BSA) coaches in the professional game, especially those with long-term industry knowledge, so BSA youngsters have not really had any prominent figures to look up to … there is nobody at the moment who can be that beacon of light”.

Taff Rahman
Former England and Spurs Coach, Taff Rahman

This sentiment has been echoed in existing literature surrounding the subject. John Hoberman notes that ‘many black children grow up assuming that they were simply born with athletic ability, and some coaches encourage them in this belief’. Conversely, young British Asians may harbour a ‘lack of confidence’ or adopt a defeatist approach as very few pioneers have participated at the highest level. With such a sparsity in role models at the elite level of the game, there remains little scope to challenge the status quo and inspire younger generations. This issue is one that needs addressing by the FA, but only serves to reaffirm the original premise that Asian’s are excluded from the game.

More insidious explanations for the lack of Asian representation in the sport have been cited. Daniel Kilvington believes that covertly racist practises in the talent identification process continue to overlook promising British Asian players. Moreover, white scouts often biologically stereotype players of South Asian descent as inferior and therefore ‘all-Asian’ football clubs and leagues are rarely visited by gatekeepers. The 2018 British Sociological Association conference in Newcastle reaffirmed the prejudice towards Asian players finding that scouts ‘thought they were only interested in non-contact sports such as cricket or were physically weaker’.

The testimony of many British Asian players stands to support the hypothesis that they are systematically overlooked. One British Pakistani amateur player stated, ‘I’ve never seen a scout watch a match here in 18 years’, whilst another grassroots player stated that ‘football is institutionally racist towards South Asian players’ and needs to ‘do a lot more to tackle the problem’.

The under-representation of Asian players is just one case in point suggesting that racism is rearing its ugly head within English football again. The senseless abuse Raheem Sterling endured at Stamford Bridge in 2018 alongside racist gestures directed towards Fred during the Manchester derby begin to illustrate the magnitude of the issue. Football must do all it can to ensure it does not revert back to the dark days of the 70s and 80s.

There is hope for a better future. The absence of role models continues to hamper the development of British Asian players but there is evidence to suggest the tide is turning.

After years of deliberation, the FA has introduced the latest of its measures to address the lack of representation and inspire the next generation of British Asians into the game.  The five-step programme will focus on the importance of role models and raise awareness of the Asian ‘success stories’ in English football.

Further to this, the FA has released a short film featuring a number of BSA figures within the game such as Charlton Athletic Women’s manager Riteesh Mishra, to demonstrate that there is a path to success for those of Asian heritage.

Baljhit Rihal, Founder of The Asian Football Awards has welcomed the move stating, ‘it’s good to see that the FA has made an effort with this plan. They have been engaging with the Asian community over the past year and I’m glad that some quality time has been spent in devising this much needed initiative’.

It is high time that the British Asian voice is heard within our national sport. The neglect that the BSA community has felt within English football may well reflect a wider societal issue but this does little to diminish the FA’s responsibility in the matter. Whilst progress has been made, it is paramount to ensure that plans aren’t just a tick-box exercise to appease a community which has been systematically excluded from football for decades.

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