I can count the number of Asian players representing elite football on one hand, let alone South Asian players. This has been an ongoing issue for several years, but yet there’s no change. The end of the 2018-19 English Premier League season saw only FOUR players represent South Asian descent- Neil Taylor, Michael Chopra, Hamza Choudhury and Zesh Rehman. 2015 saw The Football Association (The FA) launch the ‘Bringing Opportunities to Communities’ strategy to enhance inclusion with Asian populations, starting from the grassroots level. Evidently, more needs to be done, but what exactly?
Lose the racial hostility
Not long ago, former FA chairman, Greg Clarke, mentioned at a Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee meeting that South Asians typically work in IT rather than football because of their different ‘career interests’. Despite this being an outdated and stereotypical comment, there’s some truth behind it. There’s probably more South Asians working in the IT department at The FA than professional players in the game. However, he also indicated that British’ South Asian culture’ deprives inclusion and success in football. Essentially, this nullifies responsibility from The FA relating to underlying forms of racism that South Asians experience. Plus, a Manchester Metropolitan University study countered Clarke’s point as it revealed young British Bangladeshi boys play more football than young White British boys.
2010 saw Chelsea FC establish the Asian Star Initiative to promote more Asians breaking through the football pyramid. This offers 8-12-year-old Asian children the chance to secure a 12-month placement in the Chelsea FC Foundation Elite Centre. The programme has run for over nine years and still hasn’t produced a permanent Chelsea star from Asian heritage.
Essentially, building a solid rapport between professional clubs and British Asian footballing neighbourhoods is imperative to understand the audience targeted. If this isn’t accomplished, we’re risking promoting opportunities for South Asians based on stereotypes and current practice which isn’t proving effective.
The demand for authentic role models
The lack of players isn’t the only issue; there’s a substantial absence of BAME coaches, let alone South Asian coaches across the British football pyramid. The player and coach relationship are similar to tea and biscuits; you can’t have one without the other! Coaches are mentors to the players to guide, mould and facilitate them with the resources to be the best athlete’s possible.
Promoting more authentic opportunities for South Asian coaches will help bridge the gap between professional and grassroots clubs. Coaches are likely well-connected in British Asian communities. Their networks can leverage professional clubs with a broader knowledge of how more South Asian players can progress up the playing ladder.
The Professional Football Association (PFA) announced a new BAME player-to-coach placement scheme last year. The English Football League intend to work closer with BAME PFA members for 23 months with six coaches per season.
If the PFA could initiate something similar to target South Asian coaches, we could see significant progress in the game with the right insight into those communities.
Revamp club scouting strategies
Asian minorities make up 8% of the country, but over 4,000 professional players in the UK and Asian pro players make up only 0.3% of that total. Could this suggest a large scale of prejudice and unconscious bias is still present in the game? 2019 saw an East London football team, Sporting Bengal, instructed by their manager, Imrul Gazi, to walk off the pitch after a racist incident occurred against Aveley FC Reserves. The coach accused the referee of racism as he allegedly said before kick-off, “you lot aren’t winning this”. This remark was reportedly made to a white player within a predominantly South Asian squad of Sporting Bengal, causing them to feel devalued due to their ethnicity.
Unfortunately, systematic racism has spread across the game for several years. In 1996, The FA published research entitled, “Asians can’t play football”. The paper determined Asian players are physically and culturally stereotyped by Scouts at a preliminary stage of player recruitment.
An academic in Cultural and Media Studies from Leeds Beckett University, Dr Daniel Kilvington, has comprehensively researched scout’s attitude to South Asian players. He’s interviewed ‘hundreds of people’ and the critical discovery was scouting networks still overlook British Asian players. In 2018, Kilvington spoke at a conference and claimed to speak with a professional club coach who told him, “They don’t like physical contact, I think that’s their problem, why are they good at cricket?”. Kilvington also noted current players in the elite game have ‘non-stereotypical’ Asian names (e.g. Niel Taylor, Michael Chopra). This could imply it was initially less obvious for stereotypes to notice they were Asian.
Ultimately, any demographic entering the elite game needs to earn their right regardless of their background. Although, how can you expect to boost South Asian prominence if you’re not even acknowledging them in the first place? This calls for club scouting strategies to have direct interventions and pathways set up for South Asian players to avoid them getting filtered out by stereotypes.
To summarise, there’s a long way to go to welcome a broader horizon of South Asian talent in the elite game. It’s flattering to see The FA create a direct action plan to encourage this. With the correct engagement amongst British Asian communities, authentic opportunities to recognise BAME coaches and educating scouts on diverse recruitment, we’ll begin to see a positive change in elite football.