Waiting game

No Asian footballer has cut it at the highest level yet, but Matthew Brown thinks that could be about to change

Cultural success in Britain was celebrated earlier in the year with the publication of a list of the top 100 Asian businessmen and a flurry of newspaper articles on the country’s Asian millionaires. In December, 2nd Generation, the ‘style mag for Britain’s Asian youth’ celebrated the end of its first year with a list of 1997’s best bands including well-known names such as Asian Dub Foundation, Cornershop and State of Bengal.

What’s any of this got to do with the price of Alan Shearer, you may ask? Well, maybe nothing except that it goes to show how extraordinary it is that while the two million or so people of Asian origin in this country feature everywhere in British life from cricket to Carlton TV, not one has yet been deemed good enough at football to sample life as a Premier League player.

This issue has been covered in the pages of WSC several times over the years, yet despite the occasional pledges of action from clubs and the FA not much has changed. In fact there’s a notion that Asian players stand today where black players were 20 years ago. The PFA’s Brendan Batson said as much at the launch of the Kick It Out campaign in October, when he recalled his headmaster telling him that he’d never become a pro ‘because there aren’t many black players’. “Now Asians are in the same position,” said Batson. “But all I would say to them is ‘come on in, the water’s lovely’.”

By implication, then, all Asians have to do is wait and the door will open. But this just doesn’t add up. There were black pros in the 1970s and before; it might have been a hellish experience at times, but at least they could get on the pitch. Should Asians have to endure the racist hothouses black players put up with 20 years ago? If so, how far has football come? Ooh Ah Showab Khan, the Arc Theatre play which is currently touring schools across the country, attempts to address this question, imagining and dramatising the likely experiences of the Premier League’s first Asian star, Showab Khan.

Ooh Ah Showab Khan
pulls no punches, presenting its audiences with the outright racism of chants like “you dirty Paki bastard”, but it also deals with the subtler strains of prejudice embedded in the game’s institutions and expressed through wholly believable characters like the school teacher who tells him “No lad, cricket’s next term,” when Khan turns up for football trials; or the liberal journalist who wants him to be role model for the anti-racist movement when Khan just wants to play. “The question is not whether Asians are ready to play football,” says the play’s author, Clifford Oliver. “They obviously are. But is football ready for them? I’m not sure it is”.

Research showing that 69 per cent of professional club officials think Asian footballers are physically inferior, and that 86 per cent think they are less talented than players from other racial groups, is a powerful argument in Oliver’s favour. Yet the same survey asked people what single thing would attract more Asian spectators to football matches, and an overwhelming majority of Asian respondents said “An Asian professional player”. There’s a straightforward message here for the football clubs and authorities – the people who can really make a difference. It’s time to stop paying lip service and take a risk.

“Screw fitting in, screw not making a fuss,” says Kenny the coach as Showab Khan decides to stand up against the abuse and prejudice. “Then one day people might want to be the next Showab Khan”.

From WSC 132 February 1998. What was happening this month