A 2019 report estimated that of around 4,000 professional footballers in England, just 0.3 per cent were British Asian. So, our boys just aren’t into it? Er, not quite.
In 1991, a study by the Manchester Metropolitan University found that while 47 per cent of young white British boys played football regularly, some 60 per cent of British Bangladeshi boys, 43 per cent of British Pakistanis and 36 per cent of British Indian lads played, too.
Why, then, haven’t we seen more of these players break onto the professional pitch?
Club: Swansea City
Position: Attacking midfielder
Strengths: “Creative passing, creating chances, taking shots.”
Weaknesses: “Getting shots off-target a lot more than I should.”
Footballing hero: Steven Gerrard
Fantasy five-a-side: “Van Dijk, de Bruyne, Alisson Becker, Özil and Salah.”
Favourite match: “Liverpool vs Manchester United 2010, when Dimitar Berbatov scored an overhead kick.”
Aside from the generalisation that brown kids prefer cricket, hockey and other non-contact sports, there’s the age-old stereotype that us South Asians are edged towards academia. That our immigrant parents push their broods to become doctors, dentists, lawyers. That unlike Black players, who make up a quarter of professional footballers (and this figure is higher in the Premier League, at 33 per cent), British Asians have failed to integrate into English culture since the 1950s immigration influx (yeah, well tell that to my dead granddad, who enjoyed a tinny and a roast just as much as the next Dave).
Until Zesh Rehman made his Fulham debut in 2003, there hadn’t been a British Asian player in the top flight since Millwall’s Jimmy Carter in 1987 (and only two before that: Roger Verdi, who played in youth teams for Wolves and Ipswich Town before making over 100 appearances in the North American Soccer League, and Rashid Sarwar, who had a brief tenure with Kilmarnock, north of the border). Even then, Carter wasn’t known to be British Asian. He kept the Indian side of his mixed heritage a secret and only disclosed it some 20-odd years later.
Until that point, Rehman was thought to be the English top flight’s first. And, in the nearly-three decades since the Premier League began, just six British Asians have appeared in it: Carter, Rehman, Michael Chopra, Neil Taylor, Yan Dhanda and Hamza Choudhury.
Club: Queens Park Rangers
Strengths: “Physically, I’m very quick, strong, good jumping ability, quite technical on the ball and I’m good at taking players on and getting forward.”
Weaknesses: “Scoring goals because I’m not a forward!”
Footballing hero: Thierry Henry
Fantasy five-a-side: “Maradona, Messi, Zidane, [Cristiano] Ronaldo and myself.”
Favourite match: “QPR vs. Derby, the 2014 play-off final at Wembley when Bobby Zamora scored the last-minute winner.”
“We’re here to change that,” says the quick-talking, biz-minded Riz Rehman. Rehman’s the Professional Football Association’s player inclusion executive and the brains behind its Asian Inclusion Mentoring Scheme (AIMS). He also happens to be Zesh Rehman’s brother.
“Zesh always had people reaching out to him asking for advice and support,” the former U16s Brentford FC player tells me. “So AIMS sort of grew organically through that.”
The goal is to see more British Asians not just playing on the pitch, but coaching, refereeing, working in club offices and in footie media, too. AIMS organises mentoring via Rehman and British Asian players such as Stoke City’s Danny Batth, Tranmere Rovers’ Otis Khan, Aston Villa’s Neil Taylor and, of course, Zesh, currently player/manager at Southern FC in Hong Kong.
Club: Aston Villa
Strengths: “I’m very cool and composed on the ball. I like to attack and defend as well, so I’d say I’m an all-round midfielder.”
Weaknesses: “My left foot is something I need to improve on.”
Footballing hero: Messi
Fantasy five-a-side: “Ederson, van Dijk, Busquets, Messi and Mahrez”
Favourite match: “Barcelona vs. Paris St-Germain, 2017”
Beginning his work as director of the Zesh Rehman Foundation – a precursor to AIMS – in 2011, Rehman would visit clubs and ask coaches and managers: how many Asian players have you got? What do you guys do in the community to include Asians? The issue, more often than not, lay with recruitment.
“The recruitment system has been a problem because the way football operates is that clubs will send scouts out to the same old areas to find players,” says Daniel Kilvington, author of British Asians, Exclusion and the Football Industry.
Kilvington found that talent scouts frequented – and favoured – largely white areas in the UK, missing out regions such as Bradford, Birmingham and Luton, which have large South Asian communities. Equally, looking at the ethnic make-up of the scouting workforce across the country, Kilvington points out that it has, historically, been “pretty white and male” (it’s important to note that British Asian women are just a poorly represented, with only Aston Villa’s Asmita Ale and Derby County’s Kira Rai playing in the Women’s Super League and Women’s National League North, respectively). “So these scouts will generally go to white areas to find players.”
Position: Right-back, centre-back and centre-midfield
Strengths: “My athleticism, technical ability and reading of the game.”
Weaknesses: “I could improve on every aspect, really!”
Footballing hero: Didier Drogba
Fantasy five-a-side: “Ederson, Alves, Ramos, Taarabt and Iniesta.”
Favourite match: “Champions League final 2012, Chelsea vs. Bayern Munich. Drogba scored a last-minute penalty.”
For a young British Asian lad in 1960s and ’70s Britain, when racial tensions skyrocketed after an influx of Indian, Pakistani and Bengali immigration, joining local clubs could be met with a thumb to the exit and, in some cases, accounts of racism and violence towards the kids. For today’s young players, stories at a grassroots level often remain depressingly similar.
Researching his book, Kilvington found that experiences ranged from “opposition teams and fans mimicking bombs going off” to “a player who had his leg broken on the pitch and [was then] racially abused from the sidelines”. It meant teams of wannabe British Asian players up and down the country had to give their dream the boot before it had even begun.
“The extent of overt racism at grassroots and semi-professional level is not talked about as much as it should be,” says the author. “It’s existed for a very long time and, over the last few years, it’s arguably got worse with Brexit and the far right gaining in popularity across Europe.”
Club: Stevenage F.C.
Position: Centreattacker in the midfield, left-wing and right-wing
Strengths: “Dribbling, one v. ones and finishing.”
Weaknesses: “Heading, defending, tackling… anything to do with defence!”
Footballing hero: Cristiano Ronaldo
Fantasy five-a-side: “Casillas, Ramos, Zidane, Giggs, Ronaldinho.”
Favourite match: “Germany vs. Argentina, 2014 World Cup final.”
Dinesh Gillela, a youth player at Bournemouth, received racial abuse while playing football at around eight years old: “Mostly from opposition parents,” the 21-year-old says.
You what? “Everyone has the same reaction, man. It was really tough, but not for me because, at that age, I just wanted to play football.”
Gillela’s dad would sit in the car “fuming”, while his mum would have to listen to things said either towards her or her son. “I just got on with playing. But, looking back, it shouldn’t be like that. I just looked at it as people trying to get in my head.”
Growing up in mostly-white Surrey, Riz Rehman never saw himself as “different” when he got on the pitch. That was down to his dad, Khalid, who had immigrated from Pakistan aged 11 and was one of the few – if not only – first-generation Pakistani football coaches in 1980s Britain. The importance of role models is something he wants to instill within the new generation of players today.
Club: Wolverhampton Wanderers
Strengths: “Defending and heading.”
Weaknesses: “Pace and agility.”
Footballing hero: Steven Gerrard
Fantasy five-a-side: “Messi, Neymar, van Dijk, Thiago Silva and myself.”
Favourite match: “Liverpool vs. AC Milan in Istanbul, 2005 Champions League final.”
“Riz got me and a couple of the other lads on a call with a few younger Asian players to talk about our careers so far,” says 18-year-old Arjan Raikhy, who made his Aston Villa debut playing against Liverpool in the FA Cup in January.
“I feel like me, along with Dillon [De Silva] and Amrit [Bansal-McNulty] at QPR can help show that you can make it, and hopefully we can inspire others,” adds 20-year-old QPR right-back, Aaron Drewe.
“AIMS has helped us with connecting to other Asians in football,” continues 17-year-old Kamran Kandola, a centre-back for Wolverhampton Wanderers. “To see all the other Asians in and around the game and be able to talk about their experiences and get to know them – it’s great.”
Dillon De Silva
Club: Queens Park Rangers
Strengths: “Speed, one v. one ability, getting past players, putting a cross into the box and scoring a few goals.”
Weaknesses: “Defensively, I could improve a bit.”
Footballing hero: Cristiano Ronaldo.
Fantasy five-a-side: “[Brazilian player] Ronaldo, Cristiano Ronaldo, Maradona, Messi and Mbappé.”
Favourite match: “Barcelona vs. PSG in 2017 when they came back and won in the second leg.”
What’s more, the tide for British Asian players is slowly turning. To date, 15 players have come through AIMS and ended up playing for Championship clubs Queens Park Rangers, Swansea City and Bournemouth, and Premier League clubs Wolverhampton Wanderers and Aston Villa. That’s more than there has been at any other time in British footballing history.
“Really, we want to get these lads playing at all levels: Premier League, Championship, League One, League Two,” Rehman says. “And then it becomes normal and it stops becoming a talking point. I’m trying to keep that conversation positive.”
Fact is, Rehman is tired of talking about why there’s a lack of representation. He’s more concerned about what can be done to change it.
“There’s too much talking and not enough doing,” he agrees, firmly. “People keep talking about the lack of Asian players and what needs to be done. Well, this is what needs to be done. AIMS is doing it.”
Club: Queens Park Rangers
Strengths: “Final pass, dribbling, linking players, scoring.”
Footballing hero: Messi
Fantasy five-a-side: “Messi, Ronaldo, Ramos, Buffon and myself.”
Favourite match: “Arsenal vs. Barcelona 2011. Arsenal won 2 – 1 and beat probably one of the best teams of all time.”
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