Missing in action

Andy Lyons spoke to Jaz Baines, the author of a survey that has challenged some myths about Asian footballers

“There’s a theory they don’t like open changing rooms, their ethics don’t allow it. They do have a problem with their build, which is very slight, and they don’t like the physical element. Their eating habits are also a problem.”
The comments are from two League club youth coaches – one of whom went on to become a First Division manager – offering suggestions about why there aren’t more professional footballers from Asian backgrounds. The quotes are from an article in the Sunday Times, reprinted in Asians Can’t Play Football, a report due to be published in April.

According to its author, Jaz Baines, the project “came about because of a long –standing curiosity at the absence of Asian professional footballers”, its aim being to “offer something tangible for football’s governing bodies to consider”. Demographic trends suggest that South Asian communities – defined as Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis – will provide a proportionately larger pool of potential footballers – and potential supporters – than any other section of the UK population over the next decade.
Through canvassing the views of League club officials, Football in the Community officers, youth coaches, PE teachers, and Asian footballers with experience of playing at semi-pro level, the report examines how clubs might go about tapping into the talent on their doorsteps, and rightly lambasts their poor record to date in this area. (Chris Dolby of Bradford City is currently the only Asian holding a professional contract with a League club though, as the authors point out, he is in some ways unrepresentative, having been adopted by a white family when he was a baby and so brought up in a strongly English cultural environment.)
Overt racism is clearly a big factor in individuals’ experience, but just as worrying is the clubs’ ignorance of local Asian communities. More troubling quotations, these from club secretaries who offered “cultural factors” as the principle reason why more Asians hadn’t made the grade: “We know they they are all very religious but I don’t know anything about their religions;” “To be honest, I can’t tell the difference between a Sikh, a Hindu or a Muslim;” “We found that the biggest problem was that the Asians did not have anything to do with the club because they couldn’t speak English, even the kids.”
In total, 30 per cent of the players interviewed had got as far as trials with League clubs, with a small proportion reaching the next stage, as apprentices. Many felt let down by the lack of attention they were given compared to white colleagues: one interviewee, who served a two-year traineeship, thought that he might now be playing at First or Second Division level: “I can’t remember one time when my coach took me aside and said, ‘Right, now we are going to work on special parts of your game.’ Looking back, I know I was better than some of the apprentices they took on.” Several of the youth coaches polled were as steeped in myth as the club secretaries with “physical inferiority”, a favourite reason offered to explain the lack of Asian progress, which sets the author wondering why Middlesbrough should have gone to such trouble to sign a 5ft 4in Brazilian.
And, the reports adds, if Asians are supposed to be less physically well-developed than the rest of the population, how then to account for Ikram Butt, the Featherstone Rovers wing capped by the England rugby league team last season, or for the fact that British weightlifting and wrestling squads have long been well served by Asians?
Changes to the way they are funded means that each Football in the Community programme now has to generate its own income, with Asian families likely to be disproportionately affected by such commercialization, but such schemes are still seen as the best hope for bridge-building between professional football clubs and local Asian communities. Jaz Baines: “Basic community outreach work undertaken by professional clubs would help break down barriers. As a spectator base, the Asian market is largely under-developed. For local residents it must be odd to have this institution on your doorstep that is of little consequence to you other than as a source of potential hostility from fortnightly visitors.”
The findings of the report are in the process of being discussed with football’s governing bodies, but the next step is in their hands. As Jaz puts it: “We would argue that there is real value in pursuing the discovery of hidden talent amongst Asian footballers in this country and that the long-term benefits to the professional game of doing so would be immeasurable. Asians can play football. We just need a chance to show how."

From WSC 110 April 1996. What was happening this month