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White Men Can’t Jump, and Asians Can’t Play Football: Racism in the Prem

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Does the joke “When South Asians get corners, they open shops” tell us everything we need to know about the state of race in English football?

England v Pakistan - Second Test - Day Three - Ageas Bowl
Sadly, this is the only picture I could find by searching “Pakistan and Football.” And even if you could see their faces, I bet you wouldn’t recognize anyone.
Photo by Glyn Kirk/PA Images via Getty Images

As a young boy I used to ask my dad why some people called him Roger when his name was actually Raja. He explained that when he first came to the UK from Pakistan, somehow he became “Roger.” This was not a clever assimilation plan that he hatched in order to improve his chances of getting a job in England; rather, it was the result of the locals’ lazy pronunciation (or hearing) of my dad’s proper name.

Why am I telling you this? When my dad arrived in the UK in the 70s, there weren’t many South Asians here, by which I mean people from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Back then, many assumed we didn’t want to integrate into English culture and adopt English customs and pastimes.

Similarly, it was assumed that South Asians preferred cricket to football, and this created barriers for British South Asians who wanted to play the “Beautiful Game.” Because they were not welcomed into mainstream football clubs, South Asians eventually created their own football leagues and teams. Clubs such as Mohammedan Sporting Club 1978 and my beloved E7 FC (where I played for over 10 years) both play in Asian majority leagues, and there are a number of Asian-specific football teams such as London APSA, Sporting Khalsa and Sporting Bengal United, who became the first Asian clubs to play in the FA Cup in 2005.

Another lingering stereotype is that the Asian body is not made for football, and that we do not like contact sports, so that’s why we play cricket. Well, I wish someone had told Messi that he is too short to be a footballer, or clued in Peter Crouch that he is both too skinny and too tall to be suited to the sport.

If you look around your local street corner, parks, power leagues, schools, colleges and universities, you will see a sea of Asian talent. Yet few seem to make it to the professional level. Why? Part of the answer is that Asian players are still regarded as a gamble by many clubs. Like the Black community in the 1970s, the South Asian community needs more role models to change perceptions and shatter stereotypes. I wish I could turn on the TV and see someone that looks like me playing football. I’d like to be able to show that to my children and say “Look! He’s from our country and he made it!” But the closest I can get to someone who looks like me is Mohamed Salah, and he is from a completely different continent.

People like to say things like, “If you’re good enough they can never deny you.” That statement is no doubt correct if you are a diamond that shimmers from an early age. But most professionals will tell you that lucky breaks and hard work play equal roles in achieving success. That extra advantage could be support from a coach, a tip-off, or even someone getting injured. Often it’s the minute differences that have the biggest consequences.


Hidden Struggles Can Result In Visible Consequences

South Asians are not just battling the prejudice of the people from the other side of the fence, but we also have to battle our own communities. Many South Asian parents see football as simply a hobby, not providing the level of support that is required for their children to pursue a serious career in football. As a second generation South Asian, I would love to see my children play football professionally, and I would gladly support them in any way possible. But many first generation South Asians couldn’t or wouldn’t, due to economic issues and lack of knowledge.

The FA has studied the issue of Asian representation in British football for decades, yet they are still asking the same question. The gap between grassroots football and professional football appears to be only widening. In 1996, the FA published a paper titled “Asians Can’t Play Football”, which concluded that scouts discriminate against Asians by physically and culturally stereotyping them. It took 19 years before the FA had an actual official plan on how to counter the lack of Asians in the game.

Nonetheless, this seems to show the lack of willingness to tackle the real issue. Kick it Out, football’s equality and inclusion charity, provides workshops for players and coaches on how to deal with racism that is levied against them, but no seminars exists for coaches and scouts on how to recognize their own unconscious biases against young footballers of color.


What Does Football Look Like In South Asia

The development programs of South Asian countries lack an overarching structure and organization. There are scattered schools and facilities that provide quality coaching and competition, but only elite members of South Asian society have access to places like that. That makes it difficult to cultivate a robust national youth program. It’s evident that South Asian countries are not supporting development at the grassroots level, and you can’t build a house from the roof down.

At a higher level, the emphasis seems to be on creating franchise leagues in the hopes of making millions by mimicking the Premiership. The India Super League is an example of this. But insufficient investment in facilities and coaching has made it difficult for these domestic South Asian leagues to thrive. It is very important to have good coaches with good competition, but sadly many of these leagues have neither. The lack of quality domestic leagues combined with the cultural barriers these players face makes it extremely difficult for them to achieve their dreams of playing in the fabled European stadiums with crowds (someday allowed again) chanting their names.

Inasmuch as football is a business, one would think the big European clubs would try to search out South Asian players worthy of playing for them, as those players would expand the clubs’ fan bases. The populations of countries like India and Pakistan utterly dwarf many countries in the world, including virtually all of the nations in Europe. Statistically speaking, somewhere inside each of those countries must be a player with the natural potential to become a Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi. Finding him, or even just someone who can regularly make the S11, would seem like a marketing imperative.

Clubs make the majority of their money through sponsorships, advertising agreements, merchandising, and TV rights, so stepping into emerging markets with large populations seems like a massive untapped opportunity. Recruiting (and developing) players from those countries would automatically help with that.


Do We Need A Rooney Rule?

The Rooney Rule is a National Football League policy that requires teams to interview ethnic-minority candidates for head coaching and senior football operation jobs. It is an example of affirmative action. There is no hiring quota or hiring preference given to minorities, only an interviewing quota.

Around 7% of UK population is of South Asian descent - about 3.5 million people. Yet there are only 12 professional players who are Asian. There are just over 3,700 professional players in the UK. In other words, 0.3 per cent of British footballers are Asian.

The lack of South Asians in football is because most Asian kids aren’t even being looked at by scouts. One understands the level of dedication and hard work needed to become a professional, yet South Asians are not being given the opportunity to pass the first hurdle.

How many talented footballers have slipped through the net because of collective biases, and a failure to take responsibility for them?


Systemic Racism in Professional Football

On Tuesday, FA chairman Greg Clarke resigned after making ‘unacceptable’ comments about “colored footballers.” His metaphorical own-goal comes just weeks after the FA launched its Football Diversity Leadership Code in an attempt to take the lead on inclusion within sport.

Amongst other offensive remarks, Clarke said: “BAME communities are not an amorphous mass. If you look at top level football the Afro-Caribbean community is over represented compared to the South Asian community. If you go to the IT department of the FA there’s a lot more South Asians than there are Afro-Caribbeans. They have different career interests.” Again, this is the chairman of the FA speaking.

His comments reflect outdated racial stereotypes and are obviously unacceptable. But if I’m honest, what he is saying isn’t completely inaccurate. First generation South Asians do tend to encourage their children to pursue low-risk, high-stability career paths. I don’t blame them, because I have seen the struggles my parents faced as immigrants to the UK.

These communities need to be supported and allowed to dream. Maybe not today, maybe not next year, but soon I pray I see the face of a professional footballer who can be a role model for future generations of South Asians. Maybe then our brown children can dare to dream.


Conclusion

The South Asian community has to take responsibility for its own role in creating barriers for its youth to become footballers. But at the same time, there is unconscious bias and prejudice on a systematic scale throughout English football. Greg Clarke’s racist comments are only the most recent reminder that the odds are stacked against young South Asians who dream of someday playing in the cathedrals of the game.

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Should the FA be doing more to support the South Asian community to try to forge a career in professional football? Should European clubs be investing in the youth development programs of these countries? Do we need The Rooney Rule in Football? Is the Asian community its worst enemy? Please share your reaction in the comments below.

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