British Asians are in the stands even if the pitch remains a battle

Posted on September 26, 2010

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First featured in the Guardian

In a column last week, Dear Gérard, How times have changed …, Louise Taylor intimated that the lack of Asian players in the British game was one of the many indicators of how little football had moved on from the last time Gérard Houllier was standing in an English dug-out. And she was, of course, right.

The dearth of British Asian players, not simply in the top flight – where there are currently none – but throughout the lower leagues is astonishing given that Brits of subcontinental origin make up 4% of the UK’s population according to the 2001 census. The most recent figures show that there are only 10 British Asian players enrolled in the Premier League’s 20 club academies and a mere five full-time professionals throughout the English game.

Chelsea are one of the most high-profile clubs who have sought to address and redress this imbalance by establishing their “Search for an Asian Soccer Star”. Now in its second year, the competition is run in conjunction with the Kick It Out campaign and is an opportunity for British South Asian children between the ages of eight and 13 to win a week-long trial at the Chelsea academy in Cobham. On an individual level, the former Fulham centre-half Zesh Rehman – the first British Pakistani to play in the Premier League – has set up a foundation that aims to engage and encourage Asian youngsters to get involved in the game.

Suggested reasons as to why ethnic-minority Britons are not forging careers as full-time footballers have ranged from their unsuitable diets, the shackling effect of cultural taboo, and the Norman Tebbit school of thinking that claims British Asians have their colours too tightly tied around the cricketing mast to take any serious interest in football. Needless to say most suggestions are hopelessly misinformed and often laced with xenophobia.

Searching to explain precisely why a sector of the demographic is not represented on the pitch every weekend is fraught with problems. It can presuppose that the group is culturally homogeneous or that its members’ experiences are uniformly negative. They are not. Most often, the reasons as to why not enough British Asians have established themselves as professional footballers are as divergent as the players themselves. The approach of such clubs as Chelsea is similar to that of many positive action schemes: the more Asian kids to whom they can give chances, the more who will eventually trickle through the academies and make it in the modern game.

Nonetheless, the dilemma over the lack of British Asian players, although pressing, can be something of a red herring when trying to measure the reach of the country’s national sport into those communities. A more accurate barometer of how far the top flight has come in terms of diversity would be to take a look in the stands.

A recent survey carried out by the pollster Populus revealed that 8% of attendees at Premiership games in 2008-09 were from black or ethnic-minority backgrounds, while 16% of fans who had been attending matches over five years were from minority communities. This is the first time that a comprehensive survey of crowd diversity has been carried out but the figures confirm my anecdotal experiences around second- and third-generation British Asians: the popularity of the sport has never been higher. Football is usurping cricket in the hearts of the most recent generations of ethnic minorities in Britain, and this is despite the absence of British Asian players and strong Pakistani, Indian, and Bangladeshi national teams.

The culture of going to games every weekend is gradually becoming ingrained and it is England’s elite clubs who lead the way. Kuljit Randhawa, the founder of the Asian Football Network, acknowledges the radical change that has occurred in English stadiums. “I’ve been going to support my Premier League team since the mid-80s,” he says, “and at that time there were very few Asian faces. This is no longer the case.

“At the bigger clubs you’ll see far more Asian supporters. This is a result of the general trend in the Premiership to make grounds safer, the introduction of discrimination legislation, and positive work by clubs who work with community groups to improve accessibility. All this has culminated to make top-flight grounds far more inclusive environments for British Asians.”

Although non-white fans still consider themselves persona non grata in the lower echelons – and Randhawa reiterated that more can be done outside the biggest Premiership teams – British minorities, have been undoubted beneficiaries of the middle-class revolution in the stands. Attending games for most Asian fans no longer carries with it the concern for personal safety or the expectation of casual racism disguised as “banter”. Moreover, Wolverhampton Wanderers are the first Premier League club whose Asian fans have established a dedicated supporters group – the Punjabi Wolves.

None of this is to deny, or make light of the fact, that racial barriers exist for players trying to get into professional clubs. But at present it is the turnstiles and not the squad sheet that provide a truer reflection of the status of English football among Britain’s minority communities.

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