"Parents don’t push their children enough down the sporting route"
In October 2013, the Football Association (FA) announced plans to encourage more British Asians into football.
However, as of September 2016, Neil Taylor is the sole Brit-Asian footballer playing in the English Premier League.
That is an alarming shortage considering the fact that 7% of the UK population is of South Asian descent.
There is a sad lack of British Asians playing professional football in England, and DESIblitz explores why.
We speak exclusively to grassroots footballers, and an FA official to find out why there are so few Brit-Asians in football.
Shocking Statistics about British Asians in Football
Despite making up a fair portion of the population, only a handful of British Asians have played competitively in the English Football League.
Furthermore, just three have ever reached the Premier League, the peak of domestic English football.
For the 2016/17 season, Neil Taylor, of Swansea City FC, is the sole British Asian player in the Premier League. 500 registered players and just one of South Asian descent.
Before him, Michael Chopra and Zesh Rehman were the only Brit-Asians to play in the English Premier League. Interestingly, neither Chopra nor Rehman pledged their international allegiance to England.
Despite playing for England’s youth sides, Rehman chose to represent Pakistan at senior level for more chance of game-time.
Chopra, meanwhile, scored an impressive 22 goals in 2006/07 for Cardiff City. His name, however, didn’t get a mention when it came to England squad announcements.
Sadly, the statistics don’t get much better when it comes to other positions in football.
In 2013, the FA set an aim to have 10% of coaches and referees be black or Asian. Presently, though, they only make up around half of that percentage.
Imrul Gazi, the manager of Sporting Bengal United, comments on this widespread lack of Asians in football.
He says: “There is a lack of Asians in professional football. From admin to medicine, to actually playing, Asians are massively under-represented.”
Lack of Support from Parents and Guardians
Zesh Rehman was the first Brit-Asian to play in the Premier League, but his journey was far from easy.
In order to pursue his footballing dreams, the former Fulham FC defender left his home in the Midlands at the age of 12.
Crucially, his parents gave their support, and the family moved to London. Rehman went on to appear in each of England’s top four leagues and became captain of the national Pakistan team.
Unfortunately for aspiring British Asian footballers, not all families are as supportive. Many want their children to focus on the academic route before securing a ‘safe’ career.
DESIblitz spoke to Lovepreet Singh, a grassroots footballer for Khalsa Sports FC.
He says: “Asian parents don’t push their children enough down the sporting route which is already hard enough for Asians as it is. Having a supportive network of family and friends will help British Asians break through.”
Imrul Gazi adds: “It is very important for young, talented children to have committed and supportive parents.”
Clubs and scouts identify most young talent between the ages of seven and fifteen. Parental support and guidance, therefore, is vital to their development.
Is Cricket still the More Popular Sport?
The Indian Super League (ISL), Hero I-League, and Premier Futsal have all proven to be hugely popular in India recently.
Despite the recent emergence of football, however, cricket is still the main sport of India. But is that also the case for British Asians in the UK?
A recent DESIblitz poll found that football is the most popular sport amongst British Asians, ahead of cricket, tennis, and hockey.
The Director of Inventive Sports, Jas Jassal agrees. He says: “When you look at grassroots sport, second and third generation British Asians love their football, probably more than cricket.”
But even if cricket was the preferred sport, where are the British Asians? How many more can you think of after Adil Rashid, Monty Panesar, Ravi Bopara, and Moeen Ali?
At grassroots level, though, numerous Brit-Asians can be seen playing football and cricket. So why are so few of these grassroots players making the transition into professional sport?
Unfair Opportunities to British Asians?
In the 1970s, Rajinder Verdi was forced to change his name due to racism. He became Roger Verdi before moving to the USA and beginning his professional football career there.
At just 10 years old, Zesh Rehman was told flatly that he wouldn’t make it in football. He says:
“I was told directly to my face, by an FA coach, that I would not make it because I had the wrong diet, was scared of the weather, and that I liked cricket more than football.”
But these examples were decades ago, surely things have changed?
Rukon Choudhary (21) and his brother are now players for Sporting Bengal United. But previously they were a part of the Leyton Orient under 14s team.
While playing for Orient as young teenagers, the pair were constant subjects of abuse from the sidelines.
He says: “The racism we received at that age from parents, and sometimes officials, was crazy. That’s what we had to put up with, we just had to ignore it.”
DESIblitz spoke to a British Asian FA Official to get his views. And Mr Imran said: “Diversity is still struggling to be promoted within football. [An underlying racist attitude] still exists and denies fair opportunities for British Asians.”
Adil and Samir Nabi were two of the brightest Brit-Asian prospects in football. However, they were unable to force their ways into the West Bromwich Albion first team and have both now left the club.
After a loan spell at Delhi Dynamos of the ISL, Adil Nabi is now with Peterborough United. Samir, meanwhile, has moved permanently to Delhi Dynamos.
Their younger brother, Rahis Nabi, remains with West Bromwich Albion. Will he have better fortune in English football with West Brom?
What’s being done to help?
British Asians are playing grassroots football all around the UK for various amateur and semi-professional teams, such as Sporting Bengal United.
Between September 30 and October 2, 2016, eight of the biggest Asian clubs will compete against each other at the UK Asian Football Championships.
The Championships are now in their eighteenth year, and the 2016 final will take place at Celtic Park, Glasgow.
The Khalsa Football Federation (KFF) are bringing even more Asian football teams together in their summer tournaments.
Ranging from Under 9s to Over 35s, the KFF tournaments offer players of all ages a platform to perform.
Unfortunately, though, scouts are not often enough at these events to recognise the talented Asian players. Khalsa Sports impressively won four out of five KFF tournaments in 2015, but no scouts recognised their efforts.
In 2014, Harpreet Singh founded Panjab FA, a UK based team representing the Indian state of Punjab. His team of British Asian players came runners-up in the 2016 conIFA World Cup in Abkhazia.
Khalsa Sports and Panjab FA player, Aaron Dhillon, says: “For the Panjab team to be set up is a great chance for some of the quality Asians to be recognised as we are overlooked all the time at grassroots level.”
Foundations and Initiatives
FA Official, Mr Imran, says: “There are still not many British Asians within top roles at professional clubs, from coaching to medical staff, and even HR roles. There is no highly visible role model that shows youngsters that the ‘glass ceiling’ is broken.”
However, the Asian Football Awards began in 2012 to try and address that exact issue. The awards recognise the contributions and efforts to football by British Asian individuals and groups.
Michael Chopra, Neil Taylor, Adil Nabi, referee Jarnail Singh, and the KFF are just some to have won awards.
Interestingly, each of the Young Player Award winners have come from Midlands clubs. Danny Batth (Wolverhampton Wanderers) in 2012, Adil Nabi (WBA) in 2013, and Easah Suliman (Aston Villa) in 2015.
British-Pakistani footballers, Zesh Rehman and Kashif Siddiqi, have both launched foundations to support Asians in the sport.
The Zesh Rehman Foundation, meanwhile, was founded in 2010 and attempts to change the perceptions of Asians in football.
The Kashif Siddiqi Foundation was founded in 2011 with an aim to increase the number of Brit-Asians in football.
Both foundations show their support to Chelsea’s Asian Star initiative, of which Liverpool FC prodigy, Yan Dhanda, was previously a participant.
Chelsea’s initiative launched in 2009 and is the first of a kind by a professional football club. Alarmingly, however, Chelsea have no British Asians in their academy, so is it actually working?
Other clubs are certainly paying attention. West Bromwich Albion spotted Dhanda at Chelsea’s Asian Star event and snapped him up.
The youngster is now at Liverpool FC, and his future looks incredibly bright. After recently signing a professional senior contract with The Reds, Dhanda could well be the British Asian who inspires millions.
Mr Imran of the FA says: “This generation is the one to inspire and allow British Asians the foothold they need to be fully integrated within the English football system.”
There are several other academy prospects who have that same potential. Keep a look out for Rahis Nabi, Simranjit Singh Thandi, and Hamza Choudhary to name a few.
Sunny Nahal is the captain of the successful grassroots football team, Khalsa Sports FC, and he gives his advice to young, aspiring footballers. He says:
“Children need to show dedication week in, week out. They need to put the hard work in and hope that their parents or guardians take them on the best route.”
Older players should use Sunny’s advice too. Gurjit ‘Gaz’ Singh plays for Kidderminster Harriers and Panjab FA.
In the 2015 Asian Football Awards, Gurjit won Non-League Player of the year. Speaking after his win, Gaz said: “I was only playing Sunday league football in 2012. I put my head down, worked hard, and now I’m here.”
Beneath the surface, it is certainly starting to happen for British Asians in football. More and more are appearing in club academies, and it is surely now a case of when as opposed to if.