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Home   /   From grassroots to groundbreakers: Are the British South Asians here?

Long read: A unique investigation that explores the under-representation of British South Asians in football and uncovers a new generation of South Asians who are ready to change the landscape of English football forever.

“Things are happening that 10 years ago were not…”

For the past 20 years, many have asked the question, where are the British South Asians in football? Despite there being around 3.6 million British South Asians in the United Kingdom and a wide interest in football from this community, only around 10 have become professional footballers in the English game. Moreover, this is an alarming number given the fact there are approximately 4000 professional footballers in England. There is an abundance of statistics that emphasises how under-represented South Asians are in football. Put simply, there are not enough playing professional football.

However, are things changing? The under-representation of players from this ethnic group has been the narrative for the past few decades but there are signs to indicate that the situation is improving. We are finally beginning to see more South Asians in football academies as well as starting to discover more details about past players. With this in mind, now is the perfect time to familiarise ourselves with these future stars who have the potential to break into the Premier League in the near future and change the face of English football as we know it.

Academic and author of five books specifically tackling sport, racism and the media, Daniel Kilvington spoke about why we are now at a turning point with South Asians in football. He talked about football organisations helping to fix the key problems affecting the under-representation and looked at The Football Association’s (FA) change in mentality towards British South Asian footballers. Over the past five years, The FA has set up new initiatives specifically tackling this issue.

Kilvington said: “We have seen The FA release the Bringing Opportunities to Communities plan, so that’s a step in the right direction. They are also in the second iteration of the Asian Inclusion Plan and have new personnel who are working with this. They could not work harder at trying to challenge these problems that we are talking about.

“They are doing the right things and having these conversations to find the best strategies for inclusion. Things are moving in the right direction and I think things are changing and we are talking about this topic more. There are things happening that 10 years ago were not, so we are making progress but it is probably a little slower than people want it to be.”

The FA has faced criticism for many years for failing to recognise the problems with the under-representation and their feeble attempts to rectify the issues. As Kilvington explained: “The FA took 19 years until they actually launched any strategy specifically looking at British South Asians; the biggest minoritised ethnic community in Britain and definitely the most excluded in the game when we look at the numbers.”

There has been a total of just five British South Asians to play in the Premier League: Jimmy Carter, Michael Chopra, Zesh Rehman, Hamza Choudhury and Neil Taylor. Choudhury and Taylor are currently in the league and play for Leicester City and Aston Villa respectively. It is evident that South Asians can play football at a professional level however, the low numbers are staggering. That being said, the number of South Asians in academies are rising, providing promise for the future. Now we must look to the likes of Arjan Raikhy, Kamran Kandola, Dilan Markanday, who are all currently in academies with Premier League clubs, and the numerous others in academy systems to hopefully come through and inspire future generations. 

Raikhy, who is in Aston Villa’s academy, was presented a fantastic opportunity when given a call-up to Villa’s first team for an FA Cup tie against Liverpool. Due to a Covid-19 outbreak in the Aston Villa training centre, the whole first team had to isolate, therefore most of the under-18’s played against the reigning Premier League champions. Despite ultimately losing the game 4-1, Raikhy was particularly impressive against Liverpool, with his story trending on Twitter and providing a massive boost to the South Asian community.

Markanday, in the Tottenham Hotspur academy, is also making good progress with his route to first team action. In February 2021, he trained with the squad and was on the bench ahead of their Europa League match against Wolfsberger. Despite not featuring, this was a brilliant break-through moment for Markanday. The 19-year-old posted a photo on Instagram and received an inspiring comment from then Spurs manager Jose Mourinho who stated, “Your day will arrive.” 

Both stories were positive moments for the South Asian community within football; with more like these also happening. There is certainly a new sense of optimism around this longstanding problem, with many looking at the academy players to break into the Premier League and change the game.

Over the last couple of years there has been a change in approach from many of the top football organisations regarding the under-representation. Many of them are now using the data that has been collected over previous decades to release initiatives aimed at tackling the deep-rooted problems. In February 2021, The Players Football Association (PFA) for example, released their new strategy aiming to improve the communication between past and present British South Asian players. With their Asian Inclusion Mentoring Scheme (Aims), there is hope that the younger generation can learn from previous players and have successful careers. Riz Rehman, who works for The PFA in the Education Department was heavily involved with Aims and is excited to see the results from the initiative.

“This is just a start and we are trying to do something positive and using the players that have been there instead of talking about it and doing nothing,” Rehman stated.

“Certain players drop out at different levels, maybe they don’t have parents in the game or have the knowledge of how to navigate the academy system or are given setbacks and don’t know how to deal with that. We have a player that’s been there and lived those experiences, so can hand out the right advice and nurture that player through their journey.

“We want to encourage others to take action rather than constantly using research and articles from back in the day.”

As well as improvements with an increased number in academies, we are also uncovering more about the history of South Asian players. In March 2021, former footballer, Ricky Hill published a new book discussing his career and stated that he was in fact the first and only player of South Asian descent to play for England. His heritage had eluded the football world until now, meaning that people simply did not realise that he was Asian due to his dual heritage.

The Luton Town legend played over 400 games for them between 1976-89, as well as managing them for three months in 2000. With family on his father’s side originating from India, Hill made three England appearances between the years 1982-86. Now the onus is on other South Asians to follow suit and become the next to represent England.

Shaheen Bi, Director of Projects at independent body Sporting Equals, spoke about the positive work that The FA are doing with them to help tackle key problems. She believes that The FA deserve praise for their change in approach during recent years. Bi said: “I think The FA recognise it is a problem and whilst we haven’t done a significant amount of direct work with them, we have given them guidance and helped them in forums to try to get that engagement from South Asians.

“They have produced strategies and recognised that the issue needs to be addressed and consulted with us to get participation from wider communities in our network, so there is work going on and they need to be credited for that.”

In March 2021, Sporting Equals launched their Terminology Resource to help eradicate the use of the term BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic). The term is contentious as it groups together large communities into the same phrase and is quite vague. This illustrates another sign of progressive work surrounding this topic, continuing to educate society on issues associated with South Asians and other ethnic communities.

A British South Asian Senior Coach, who wished to remain anonymous, also spoke about the positive surge in representation from wider areas of football. He was hesitant to speak up about the persistent issues that he faces, because of an awareness of people within the game trying to oppress him.

He said: “I think little by little it is getting better. There’s a lot more opportunities that are opening up and also the number of South Asians playing. In return, we are seeing an increase across the game from on the pitch to off the pitch involvement including coaches, physios and referees. The visibility of South Asians is starting to spread to other areas too.”

 This is noticeable with the Sikh brothers Bhups and Sunny Singh Gill who made history in April 2021 when they became the first pair of British South Asians to officiate in the same Championship match. They are sons of Jarnail Singh, who was the first Sikh referee in the English Football League (EFL). The Gill brothers were part of the officials for the match between Bristol City and Nottingham Forrest. The siblings have both officiated games in the Championship this season, but this is their first match together. The brothers will both be hoping to referee in the Premier League in the next few years, something that is yet to happen for a South Asian.

With an increase in current, positive initiatives and the improvement in representation already starting to take place in academies, it seems that the future for British South Asians in football is bright. Continuity will be vital to strengthen the breakthrough in numbers that we are beginning to see. If this is the starting point, then we must continue to push from a position of strength to see a healthy number of South Asian players within the game in the next five to 10 years.

“I’ve had a few incidents with my team being called racist names, had monkey gestures from 8-year-olds”

Sat Dhami from all-Asian grassroots football club Guru Nanak Gurdwara Football Club (GNG FC) based in Leicester spoke about the challenges that his junior team have faced. He reiterated the widespread problem of racism within football at the grassroots level, along with other barriers and issues that South Asians face in the game that prevent us from seeing greater numbers.

Dhami said: “It is hard to say what one thing is playing a factor in the under-representation but I would say that unconscious bias is a big factor. There is unfortunately still racism, I’ve had a few incidents with my team being called racist names, had monkey gestures from 8-year-olds so there is definitely still racism there.”

My conversation with Dhami revealed the appalling environment his junior football team are exposed to and the stark problems South Asians of all ages face within football across all levels.    

“I hear a lot of people say if they’re good enough they will get in but that’s assuming that everyone’s given a fair chance and I don’t think they are. If a scout sees two players and need to choose between a brown player or a black or white player they will go with the black or white one because in the past that has been successful. There haven’t been many successful brown players so we have to be better than the white equivalent to get the same chance.”

GNG FC has been around for 50 years and has gone from strength to strength. The football club was formed by a group of friends who wanted to play football but were not welcomed at other clubs in Leicester because of their ethnicity. They have grown massively as a grassroots club and are one of the best at producing South Asian talent in the diverse city.

Dhami has been with GNG for 10 years and helped them to produce fine footballers. However, he has noticed that his players still continue to get overlooked and believes that teams want traditional English footballers that tend to be strong rather than technically cute. He said: “Taking things to a deeper level, British football has an issue and is not keen on ball players. It’s that old fashioned, big, strong, smash the player, smash the ball out, which generally suits other ethnicities. I think the scouting system is looking for this physical model that mostly black and white players fit but not outside this.”

Racism has unfortunately found its way back to the forefront of both football and society. With no fans currently in stadiums due to Covid-19, spectators’ negative opinions on social media are gaining momentum and exposing the vile opinions of a minority.  Professional footballers of various race and ethnicities have been targeted, with racial abuse once again spiking and coming to the centre of society.

Rehman spoke about this and believes that punishments need to be more severe to tackle this problem. He said: “There has to be some kind of formal process, maybe you need a passport attached to your social media accounts, your address or something. We can’t keep allowing this to happen. It’s so prevalent in other sports too but football comes to focus because they have millions of followers and everyone is talking about it. Unless you’ve got a big profile, you don’t get the media coverage when you are abused, and we don’t want it in the game at all.”

Swansea footballer Yan Dhanda is one of the players who has received a significant amount of racial abuse on social media since the beginning of 2021. As a proud South Asian playing in the Championship, Dhanda has been using his profile to help push South Asian footballers into the limelight. But, like many other footballers from ethnic backgrounds, he has endured abuse after games. In April 2021, due to persistent racial abuse and a lack of action from social media platforms, Swansea went on a week-long blackout on all their social media accounts. Many of their players have endured discrimination via social media, hence the club-wide stance. Using the hashtag ‘Enough Is Enough’, Birmingham City also joined the blackout in solidarity.

At the end of April 2021, this was taken a step further when Premier League clubs and players joined The FA, EFL and Women’s Super League in a social media blackout. This was done across all their social media to protest against racial and discriminatory abuse online. A statement from the Premier League was also published to emphasise the responsibility social media platforms have in stopping this from happening.

Rehman also spoke about the collective work that all governing bodies are doing to try to eradicate social media abuse. In February 2021 a group letter from English footballing bodies was sent to Facebook and Twitter CEOs urging for better restrictions and punishments for the culprits.

“The PFA, FA, EFL, Kick It Out, they’re all coming together and forcing action from these social media platforms. You’ve got a lot of keyboard warriors sitting behind their screens sending out all kinds of abuse, we just don’t need it in football. It’s not what people want to see, and they’ve got to start taking responsibility now.

“And the perpetrators need to be known and called out and banned from social media, whatever it will take to get people to stop, maybe even sacked from their workplaces if that’s what it takes to stop inequality and racism.”

As well as barriers for South Asians within football, particularly at grassroots level, there are also problems in professional industries. Dev Trehan, an influential British South Asian Sport Journalist in England spoke about the difficulties he faces in the football journalism world.

The challenges that he encounters reign similar to many other South Asians in England, mirroring the ones footballers face too. Trehan said: “There is a massive lack of role models. You don’t see many on television so it makes you think, how is it possible? The industry is mainly white. I walk into meetings and most of the time I’m the only South Asian face. It puts pressure on me as I’m representing every South Asian in the country. I am the physical embodiment of all those people so when I open my mouth, I better make it good otherwise they’re going to think we’re all stupid.”

Within the industry, Trehan aims to combat systemic racism and adversity through his reporting, providing a platform to South Asian athletes within the UK whose stories are often unheard and overlooked. In football, he believes that the under-representation stems from deep-rooted societal issues.

“We are sometimes perceived in a certain way and the South Asian community is still overlooked in football. We should see more South Asians and we’re not getting the maximum number through the doors. We’re an afterthought.”

Academic, Daniel Burdsey has been addressing this topic for the past 20 years within his work. He outlined the key barriers which exist for South Asians in football. Burdsey summarised the under-representation by saying: “My take is that the fundamental aspect is racism and when I say racism, I see this not just in blatant overt racism but in networks of whiteness which exclude and I think there needs to be a greater recognition of that from top football institutions. They talk about opening up opportunities but don’t actually recognise their role in creating the problem.

“I think the whole society influences football thing is really important but sometimes when people talk about that they give football a free pass and suggest that football is a mirror which reflects society. Actually, football has its own problematic processes, generating its own social meanings and they can emanate back up to society as well. I would caution against letting football off the hook because it’s culpable for some of this too.”

Another barrier closely linked to systemic racism is the lack of education around this topic. Often the saying ‘the cream will rise to the top’ is used as an explanation for the under-representation of British South Asians in football. However, we know that this is a far too simple explanation and the issues run deeper into society than imagined.

Kilvington was keen to stress the need for greater education to help combat this and other issues when talking about the under-representation of South Asians in football. He said: “It’s only through education and contact with these communities that are outside your particular ethnic group that you start to have these stereotypes challenged and that’s not happening within the game. I think also you’ve got to look at the education that previously existed, coaches may have been players in the 1970’s and 80’s and probably did not have education about diversity and understanding racialised inequality.

“They are white and privileged so if you’re coming at this with a lack of education and your network is very much white and male, then that is going to produce a culture of white male networking that keeps on being reproduced.”

It is evident that a large range of barriers remain that continue to slow down the progression of South Asians entering the game. If we are to see continued success with more breaking into the professional game, these must be addressed and eradicated.   

“Role models do exist; they are out there… let’s profile their stories.”

Though it is great news to see an increased number of British South Asians in academies, we need to ensure that this progression continues. This can be achieved by building on the good work that has already happened and seeking solutions to the problems that affect the under-representation.

Kilvington spoke about the media’s responsibility to visibly provide more role models by uncovering and profiling successful South Asians. He said: “We need to see different types of stories rather than repeating the same news angles. We’ve seen these stories for 20-30 years; how can we push this discussion forward?

“Role models do exist; they are out there in all forms of the game. There are young women playing football wearing a hijab and breaking down barriers in football, let’s profile their stories. Let’s profile people off the pitches, physios, kit and grounds people because there are so many people in the game, not just players. Generally, we focus on the players and the Premier League but there are millions of jobs attached to football.”

Kilvington was passionate about the need to see more positive stories within the media. This is beginning to happen, but more could be done to help push these narratives forward in to mainstream media. This is necessary to maintain high moral and to keep young South Asians dreaming of becoming footballers. Without seeing these stories this could be detrimental to the progression of South Asian footballers in the future.

The current British South Asians in academies could change the face of English football but must be profiled and championed to support this, coupled with the initiatives that we are beginning to see. Now must be a stepping stone for the pursuit of an equal representation.

However, Burdsey is still worried about the lack of role models that there currently are within football and believes that the South Asian community may lose hope if improvements are not made. Without the visible role models, it can become easy for young people to give up on tackling the under-representation, something that has happened with generations before.

Burdsey said: “We have an obsession about getting the one, and this is how people think role modelling works, one is enough. But in football that cannot work. If you focus on getting one over the line, you can see why it’s important because it disproves any allegations of racism and it celebrates what you have but concentrating on the one is never going to be sustainable. You have to look at the base of the pyramid rather than the top and they are not mutually exclusive; you have to be looking at bringing not only one British Asian player through but one hundred.”

Whilst it is positive to start seeing a better representation of South Asians in academies, Burdsey believes that we are still at a crucial time in terms of seeing continued success. “I think we are at a tipping point, where almost a generation of South Asians are probably going to say, ‘why do we bother?’ So maybe we get a generation that say, ‘look this isn’t happening’ and then that reproduces onto the next generation.”

Dhami agreed with Burdsey and reiterated the importance of tackling the problem and finding a solution at the grassroots level. The base of the football pyramid is such an important level to start bringing South Asian players in. If improvements can be made to this section, there is hopes that South Asians can move up the stages of football, eventually finding their way to the top of English football. Dhami said: “I think it does take clubs like GNG FC to change that stereotype. If you see one good Asian player, you can say it’s an exception. But if you see an entire team like GNG, it shows that Asians can play football.

“It is going to take that and years of teams coming through before the view is changed in football. Playing the odds game, if you have teams that are really good then you’ll be producing three or four that can break through to adult teams. So, I think we need to produce lots of good Asian players and be organised to show that we can do this because they are not getting chances at other teams.”

Alongside this, it is vital to educate people within football and wider society to have continued success with British South Asians in football. Barriers in football can be tackled through education and helping people to better understand the differences between ethnicities. To see an ongoing growth in the number of South Asians, football must adapt the way it operates to help minorities within football.

Kilvington was critical of the way the footballing bodies organise and offer education to the current players and believes that a change of approach would greatly help. Kilvington said: “All clubs try to deliver education for their staff and club members. You’ve got The PFA and Kick It Out who come in to educate the players, The FA try to do some stuff as well. You’ve got all these different groups who are doing the same thing, but no one really knows exactly what everyone’s doing so some things are just being repeated.

“I think it would be a good idea for The FA to lead on this and say that it is mandatory for every club to have education on certain topics every single year. There could be an annual workshop where it brings all the coaches together and discusses diversity and race. That would be a fantastic idea.” As said by another Guardian writer, “education fosters inclusivity. So does talking.” It is clear that educating people within the game is needed to help combat the negative stereotypes that continue to be seen in football today.

As well as this, Rehman pointed out that there needs to be an increased amount of diversity with all minority groups in England. He said: “Just like with Asian footballers, we need better diversity in boardrooms. It’s alright having diversity but having people actually pushing for change is so important too. It’s not good enough giving lip service and not pushing for change, you need to have people that are going to challenge the innerworkings of organisations.

“And diversity isn’t just black or white, it’s about people from all backgrounds, the LGBT community and all these different characteristics if we want to talk about real diversity.”

Kilvington also spoke about the problem within boardrooms and those in charge of organisations. He was disappointed and frustrated by former FA Chairman Greg Clarke who resigned in November 2020 following comments he made during a meeting with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) select committee. Clarke resigned after comments he made about footballers from the African Caribbean community as well as comments about South Asians having different interests than football and belonging in different departments.   

When speaking about tackling diversity Kilvington said: “This shows that if you are led by people who have no clue and no idea on these issues then you are always going to be struggling as an organisation. Equality and diversity strategies and inclusion strategies must be factored in and woven into every single part of an organisation if you are going to see real change. If you’ve got someone right at the top of the pyramid who is so uneducated and has no idea, you’re always going to struggle.” 

Football has an immense amount of power for influencing wider society and it needs to use this to help instil change for the future. A British South Asian Senior Coach was keen to stress this and explained how much responsibility football has when it comes to promoting positive change within both the game and society. He said: “Football is the catalyst and has a huge influence over the amount of people it can reach out to, so football is a reflection of society. For example, by football taking the knee it could get the message to the masses.”

Moving forward, it is important that football continues the good work that is happening to combat the barriers that South Asians face within football. South Asians, both within and outside of the sport face these struggles on a daily basis, therefore it is imperative that football organisations continue to work hard to combat them because of the influence the sport has within society. Through education, football organisations can break down barriers and increase accessibility for this community as well as help to fight systemic racism. By striving to change the landscape of English football this could present a more inclusive environment for South Asians. If this task can be well-managed with commitment and vigour, we should hope to see more South Asian faces and continued success through an improved representation.

British South Asian footballers should not be an exception to the norm but become part of the regular makeup of British football. Through championing the new crop of South Asians in academies now, and providing visible role models for younger generations, hopefully this can lead to a healthy representation of South Asian footballers. Along with the organisations at the top of the football pyramid continuing to work hard to fix the problems already mentioned, this should help to create a nurturing environment for this minority group to prosper in.

When we look at the state of English football in the next five to 10 years, it will be interesting to see how much influence the current British South Asians can have on future generations. If they are given the right support, they have the ability to reach the top of English football and can provide a previously unseen amount of coverage for South Asians in the Premier League. When we look back, only then will we see if enough was done during this time period, but with the new sense of positivity, there are hopes that we can enter a new chapter that tackles the under-representation of South Asians in football forever. In the future, hopefully the question of ‘where are the South Asians in football’ can be answered easily with an array of talent playing at the highest level.

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June 2024