Asian games

The FA may have staged a conference looking at the under-representation of Asians in English football, but Matthew Brown thinks they still have plenty to learn about the subject

FA goal to entice Asian players on to the field ran the Guardian headline, unwittingly highlighting both the hope and the hype surrounding the FA’s ‘Asians in Football’ conference held in Oldham last month.

Over the last two years Asian football has been the subject of any number of magazine articles and TV features. We’ve heard of Asian leagues and Asian UK teams, and we’ve even had an Asian pro, albeit briefly.

Now the FA has taken up the issue. Or, to be more accurate, the issue has been forced onto its agenda by Jas Bains’ and Raj Patel’s two-year research project, Asians can’t play football.

Judging from the media coverage, the FA’s conference marked football’s emergence into the enlightened world of equal opportunities, signalling a desire to root out Asian stars of the future. Unfortunately, some of the conference speakers left a different impression.

The hope suggested by the Guardian headline is that the FA is now going to take some action. And there may well be plans afoot. But the wording of the headline also neatly pointed up the failings of the conference. For one of the major points of Bains’ and Patel’s findings is that Asians don’t need ‘enticing’ on to the field – a hell of a lot of them play already, in fact a larger proportion of Bangladeshis play football than whites. The problem is that few get into professional clubs, they are rarely selected for programmes of excellence, and often they are not included in FA youth development schemes. The question, then, is why?

The only answer that seemed to come from the conference was that Asian parents push their kids away from sport and towards academia or business. Of course, like all stereotypes there is some truth in this notion – research showed that 40 per cent of Asian players had met some opposition from within their families. Speakers from Asian communities talked of work they were doing to change attitudes, to encourage Asian teams, leagues and players, and to promote ‘the Asian game’. Yet, as Aurangzeb Iqbal of the Bradford City Asian Supporters’ Club pointed out, they don’t need much persuasion – he had over a thousand trialists for a UK Asian team last year.

But this was a conference where football (in the form of the FA) was explicitly taking ownership of the issue, which ought to have meant that the FA would recognize the factors within football that hamper Asian players, and that it would commit itself to specific measures to remove them. Yet, both Tony Pickerin, Director of the FA’s programme of excellence, and Dave Richardson, in charge of youth development in the Premier League, talked at length about their respective programmes with little reference to whether Asians are encouraged to take part.

The implication seemed to be that the FA is doing what it can to provide opportunities for people to play, so if Asians aren’t on their schemes the problems must lie with them. There was little recognition that 69 per cent of professional club officials asked in the report thought that Asians were physically inferior, and 86 per cent thought they were less talented.

Pickerin actually stated, “We do not monitor the centres of excellence for ethnic origin,” and questioned whether this is a good idea. As Bains’ research had found that only 0.2 per cent of people in centres of excellence were Asian, then, yes, Mr Pickerin, it is a good idea. In fact, in most areas of society it’s accepted as a necessary first step to combating structural inequalities.

Some football clubs have started to do good work. Terry Singh, a community coach for Leicester, talked of his work with local Asians, 30 per cent of the City’s population, and how the club has encouraged more Asian fans whilst also looking for Asian talent. Similarly, Bradford City have appointed an Asian scout specifically to look for players in local minority communities.

More common at the top level, however, is the attitude displayed by Terry Murphy, an Arsenal scout and guest at the cup final of the London Asian Football League last year. “There don’t seem to be many Asian kids in the teams I watch,” he said. “Maybe it’s because their parents or their religious commitments stop them playing.” Like many scouts, he watches the same teams and leagues year after year and confessed he never made specific efforts to watch Asians – not untypical of most clubs’ recruitment strategies.

Maybe I am jumping the gun and the FA are about to reveal a clear, practical programme for action, although why they wouldn’t have unveiled it at the conference is puzzling to say the least. A whisper in the crowd had it that draft plans for pilot programmes in three regions were sent to the FA’s Assistant Director of Coaching and Education, Robin Russell (Charles Hughes’ deputy), but were not revealed in Oldham because ‘a commitment in principle’ was felt to be more appropriate.

As we have seen, commitments in principle get good media coverage. Unfortunately, what’s needed is the kind of grassroots activity that is unlikely to stir headline writers but may just yield results. The conference may have been, as the ever charitable Guardian put it, the FA’s “first shot in a battle to break down the barriers which prevent Asian participation.” Let’s hope so. But as the whisperer commented: “They could be on the verge of doing something important, or they could just be paying lip service.”

From WSC 119 January 1997. What was happening this month