The success of players such as Michael Chopra and Zesh Rehman may be an advance on the position ten years ago but, Steve Wilson writes, this is not enough and those behind a new report – Asians Can Play Football – are challenging the game to reform

On the day in September when Trevor Phillips, the chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, warned that “we are sleepwalking our way into segregation” and Home Secretary Charles Clarke outlined his “commission on integration” to combat anti-Islamic feelings in the wake of the July London bombings, a group of Asian football fans were lamenting a wasted decade for the advancement of British Asian footballers and challenging the football authorities to back up good intentions with the resources and actions needed to foster genuine change.

Nearly ten years after the ironically named report Asians Can’t Play Football called for structural change in football to overcome barriers for both players and coaches, the Asians in Football Forum this month felt compelled to launch another – Asians Can Play Football – outlining how shamefully little had changed, at the top end of the game at least.

It is possible to count on the fingers of one hand, the number of British Asians playing professional football in this country. Michael Chopra (Newcastle), Zesh Rehman (Fulham), Adnan Ahmed (Huddersfield) and Harpal Singh (Stockport) may have breached the invisible barriers, but that they remain the exception rather than the norm underlines the need for reform.

The old explanations for under-representation – they prefer cricket to football, they have the wrong build or diet, Asian parents steer their children away from sport towards education – may invoke a time when Alf Garnett was a cultural barometer. Yet with just ten Asian players currently in the Premiership academy system, the accusation of institutional, if not overt, racism is a difficult one to refute.

Exploding such lazy stereotyping, the report outlines a number of successes stories at the local level, achieved despite, not because of, official responses to the effective exclusion of Asians from British football. In August, Sporting Bengal and London APSA became the first Asian clubs to play in the FA Cup, albeit both losing in the extra preliminary round. Luton United, formerly Luton Asians FC, of the Chiltern Youth league, have expanded in the last five years to include sides from under-eights upwards and have witnessed three promotions and two league titles across all age groups since 2000. Providing access to qualified FA coaches, the hope and reality are that Luton’s large Asian community can themselves become teachers of future generations.

Nirvana FC in Leicester began life in the mid-Eighties as a refuge for isolated and excluded players, faced with racism and disadvantage from the off. It has grown into a thriving youth set-up which has now appeared on the radar of Leicester City as a breeding ground for young talent.

Albion Sports FC in Bradford, perhaps Britain’s most successful club of its kind, the Positive Futures scheme in Coventry and the Manchester County FA’s attempts to connect with communities through Mosques and temples, as well as others too numerous for mention here, show that, particularly in inner-city areas, the volume and desire is already in place.

In the face of such overwhelming evidence, it is impossible to deny that there exists an as yet untapped pool of future talent. With many clubs burdened by harsh financial realities, ignoring such resources appears false economics on a breathtaking scale that only English football clubs have an aptitude for. The penny has at least dropped at Leeds United and West Ham, where both clubs reach out specifically to their large local Asian communities.

Abul Hussain, a football development officer with West Ham’s Asians In Football project – a scheme originally launched in 1998 in partnership with Sport England – believes that, despite the vital and impressive work undertaken at amateur level, the only hope for seeing more Asian faces in League football is in direct association with clubs themselves. “There needs to be a clear pathway to the professional game or you will lose the talent,” suggests Hussain. “Other initiatives are good in isolation, but when kids reach 16 they can end up leaving the game. There is nothing for them to do in terms of coaching and they end up playing for their Sunday team. If they are connected to a club there are opportunities for them to continue their development.”

“Football is a massively powerful agent to bring together people,” says Jas Bains, chair of the forum. “We are laying down the gauntlet to the football authorities. Over the last ten years they have been unable to deliver. The game has shown itself unwilling to engage with outside influences; and in this sense we are an outside influence.”

“We are talking about getting representation at the professional level,” adds Bains. “We’ve got participation – we’re now after excellence. I look forward to the time when Asians are representing the national team. But more than that, if, in another ten years, we don’t need this forum, that will be real success.”

From WSC 225 November 2005. What was happening this month

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