Britain’s Missing Asian Footballers

As the Premier League starts up and players continue to take a knee against systemic racism, Callum Ferguson looks at enduring lack of British footballers from Asian backgrounds at all levels of the national game.

When we talk about racism in football, the discussion usually centres around the abuse faced by Black players.  But there is another racial issue in football that is more rarely discussed, and that is the lack of British South Asians at the top levels of the game.

When African-Caribbean players first broke into the top level in the 1970s, the same was not true of their South Asian brethren. Despite there now being around 4 million South Asians in the UK and a wide interest in the game from this community, only around 10 have become professional footballers in the English game.  This is all the more alarming when you discover the fact there are approximately 4000 professional footballers in England. The bottom line is that South Asians are playing as professionals well below their proportion in the UK population. But why?

The obstacles to recruiting South Asians in football have been widely discussed and the general consensus is that the two main causes are institutional racism within the game halting progression of players, and the racist abuse at the grassroots level.

The professional South Asians that do play tend not to get racially abused as much as other ethnic minorities, mainly due to the significant under-representation. However, those at grassroots teams endure racial abuse on a weekly basis. Many British South Asians either stop playing at their clubs or play in all-Asian leagues to escape the abuse. This has a knock-on effect to both scouting networks which fail to notice these players, thus keeping them out of the game, and footballing organisations who do not take racism at grassroots level seriously enough.

A combination of these two main problems and a lack of education and true understanding around the causes of under-representation makes it near impossible to create a different narrative.  

Systemic racism is a massive problem in football but is also extremely hard to notice and fight. Academic Daniel Burdsey has studied this topic for the past 20 years, writing key literature around British South Asians in football. When questioned about the under-representation, he outlined systemic and institutionalised racism as the main problem.

“My take is that the fundamental problem is racism and when I say racism, I see this not just in blatant overt racism but in networks of whiteness which exclude. I think there needs to be a greater recognition of that from top football institutions because there isn’t any recognition of that at the moment. They talk about opening up opportunities but don’t actually recognise their role in creating the problem,” Burdsey stated.

The FA are often criticised for their lack of action and need to be held responsible for their part in the problem. It took them 19 years to release any documentation on the under-representation of South Asians in football and they still have not made any noticeable changes to improve the situation. This community has been neglected by this organisation for many years.

Burdsey also outlined the lack of serious change from top footballing organisations surrounding this topic, offering another form of institutionalised racism.

“The polices to make change are not designed to create change and that’s the big criticism of policy work in this field or any kind of diversity work. A lot of them are made to make white people feel comfortable rather than actually affecting change. So, the latest FA bringing diversity to communities’ documentation for British Asian footballers just goes over the same ground and makes really nebulous statements which don’t have any affect,” he said.

As well as institutionalised racism, social media abuse has once again spiked. Riz Rehman from the Professional Footballers Association spoke about the rise of social media abuse and believes that punishments need to be more severe to tackle this problem.

“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,” Rehman said. 

Rehman has been at the heart of trying to create positive change in this area, and was heavily involved in the PFA’s Asian Inclusion Mentoring Scheme. This is designed to connect past British South Asian footballers with current ones to aid them in their footballing careers. It has been running for five months and has been a huge success so far.

The final problem surrounding the under-representation is the difficulties South Asians have at grassroots clubs. Sat Dhami, a coach 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 that South Asians face in the game preventing us from seeing greater numbers.

“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 one. 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,” Dhami said.

“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 needs 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.”

Whilst there are still lots of problems around the under-representation, there is also hope for the future. We are beginning to see more positive work and change starting to happen. For example, the large number of South Asians in football academies. The likes of Arjan Raikhy, Kamran Kandola and Dilan Markanday are all currently in academies with Premier League clubs and have made great steps towards Premier League football. Along with the numerous others in academy systems all being mentored through AIMS. The lack of role models for South Asians has also been a big problem, with no one to look up to and aim to replicate their career. However, with this new crop of players coming through, they can inspire future generations, providing a previously unseen amount of role models for South Asians. 

This is also being seen in other areas of football as well. In April 2021, we saw Sikh brothers Bhups and Sunny Singh Gill make history 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 Forest. The siblings both officiated games in the Championship last 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.

For this positive change to continue we must work hard around topics like institutionalised racism and educate society. Only through education can real change occur. We must use the recent positivity as a stepping-stone for greater opportunities and an equal representation of British South Asians in football. We have been denied and been voiceless for the past 20 years but must now finally begin to make the changes needed.

 

Callum Ferguson

Callum Ferguson recently graduated with a 1st class BA Hons in Sport Journalism from The University of Brighton. His dissertation was on the under-representation of British South Asians in football and he researched and written about this topic over the past 12 months. He continues to write about the under-representation, continuing the conversation by spreading awareness about the issue. 

Callum has a passion for using his writing to create positive change within society and working towards a more racially inclusive society.