With South Asian players conspicuous by their absence at all levels of professional football, cultural reasons are often cited as a major factor. However, as Basit Mahmood reports, there are often barriers that have more to do with the prejudice of football’s gatekeepers
Only 12 out of over 3,700 professional football players in England and Wales are of South Asian ethnicity, even though British South Asians form 5% of the general population. It’s a national scandal that deserves a lot more attention than the usual “drive by” coverage that many media organisations are willing to give it.
There’s a feeling that when people talk about diversity in football or kicking out racism, they usually frame their arguments in the Black-white binary, completely ignoring what have become an “invisible group” of individuals, who despite having the same love of the game as everybody else as well as copious amounts of talent and potential, are left out of the conversation.
When you grow up in a town like Luton, which has a significant Asian and particularly South Asian demographic and see the passion and talent so many young South Asian boys have for football, you can’t help but wonder why it doesn’t translate into success at the highest levels of the game.
“During a conference, Dr Dan Kilvington, of Leeds Beckett University, says one white scout told him that “They [Asians] don’t like physical contact, I think that’s their problem. Why are they good at cricket? Why are they absolutely exceptional at squash?”
Whilst speaking to some of those from South Asian backgrounds involved at the grassroots level of the game, it became clear that the barriers were many, with a sense of resignation of “that’s just how thing are and all always will be”. From scouts making sweeping cultural generalisations and stereotypes, to players being released for reasons unknown, I set out to explore some of these barriers in more detail.
One of those who I spoke to was Husnane Shah, who, after scoring 84 goals in one season for his grassroots team, was invited for a trial at a professional club. Following the trial Husnane claims a scout at the club told him he was specifically told not to “take on Asian footballers”.
Husnane says that particular incident left him shocked and saddened, and whilst many of us would like to comfort ourselves thinking that this was a one off, research cited by the British Sociological Association highlights a more widespread problem, especially amongst scouts.
During a conference, Dr Dan Kilvington, of Leeds Beckett University, says one white scout told him that “They [Asians] don’t like physical contact, I think that’s their problem. Why are they good at cricket? Why are they absolutely exceptional at squash? Why do they not participate in any other sports where there is physical contact?”.
Another scout told him that the reason for hardly any Asian footballers was because ‘their traditional game is cricket.’ Yet the same research shows that Asian men and boys have higher rates of participation in amateur football than their white counterparts. Culture has become a lazy excuse for many.
Imrul Gazi, 44, manages Sporting Bengal, a grassroots club from East London, made up predominantly of those from South Asian backgrounds. He’s had some of his younger players go on to join the youth teams of clubs including QPR.
He highlighted one example of how one of his most exceptionally talented players was playing for Dagenham and Redbridge FC’s under 14s. At the end of the 2014/15 season, Imrul says the player was “released without any response”. After persisting with trying to find out why, Imrul claims he was told that the “kid was released for being too quiet”.
Imrul says this simply isn’t good enough and says clubs must do a lot more than simply pay lip service to reaching out to underrepresented communities. He questioned whether it was a case of simply giving the youngster enough time to come out of his shell, especially since having come from an entirely different background to many of his team mates, it was a case of adapting to unfamiliar surroundings.
Pakistani and Bangladeshi children also have the highest levels of child poverty in the UK, and when Imrul highlights the costs involved of taking children to training and levels of commitment required, it highlights a particular barrier players he is trying to push into professional football have to contend with, that is often overlooked
Whilst Imrul acknowledges that many scouts “stereotype South Asian players straight away”, falsely believing that many are “focused on education” due to their traditional families, he also believes more commitment is required from parents and players not to give up straight away, despite the difficulties they face. He also suggests that the clubs begin to put in place quotas to help address the balances that exist.
Zahid Hamid, who plays for grassroots side FC Peterborough, says there “is a lot of institutional racism” especially at the grassroots level that needs addressing. He spoke about how during games players were taunted by others to “shave off their beards” or how there existed stereotypes from scouts about Asian players being “too small or too weak” a stereotype which he says is undermined by the fact that Lionel Messi is one of the world’s greatest despite not being physically very imposing at all.
“An added obstacle that Zahid feels that South Asian footballers have to contend with is the fact that many come from Muslim backgrounds, which brings its own difficulties, given how normalised Islamophobia has become in the current climate”
Zahid claims that organisations like the FA “are almost willing to listen to our concerns, but that’s it”. He Believes that there needs to be a lot more action that needs to be taken to ally the fears of Asian communities.
An added obstacle that Zahid feels that South Asian footballers have to contend with is the fact that many come from Muslim backgrounds, which brings its own difficulties, given how normalised Islamophobia has become in the current climate. He said: ‘I feel that some of this ties into religion, there’s a lot of negative press about Muslims’.
The FA, when approached for comment had this to say:
“In 2015 The FA introduced the first phase of its Asian Inclusion Plan called ‘Bringing Opportunities to Communities’, aimed at engaging with Asian communities and encouraging greater inclusion in the game, and we continue to work regularly with Asian communities to ensure there is a clear pathway to participate in football. Since its launch we have already surpassed our target of providing 50,000 playing opportunities for boys and girls via Community Development Centres.
We want to lead the way in equality, diversity and inclusion in football and we have recently published ‘In Pursuit of Progress’ our new three-year plan inclusion strategy, which will deliver initiatives primarily focussed around gender and ethnicity across The FA’s general workforce and leadership roles, including coaching staff across the England teams.”
The talent and commitment amongst so many south Asian football players is there for all to see. The question is will others dare to look at what many believe have become the “invisible players of the game”.
Basit Mahmood is a freelance journalist.