Why are British Asian footballers still regarded as a gamble by many clubs?

a group of young men playing a game of football: Photograph: Nick Taylor/Liverpool FC/Getty Images

© Provided by The Guardian
Photograph: Nick Taylor/Liverpool FC/Getty Images

There’s a story the academic Daniel Klivington tells in a new book – Race, Ethnicity and Racism in Sports Coaching – that speaks volumes about how far football has to go to tackle its final frontier. It concerns a British Asian who used his real name when applying for jobs in football only to fail to gain any interviews. So instead he adopted his racially ambiguous nickname instead, and found himself increasingly shortlisted for positions. The kicker? According to Klivington: “This individual is now a relatively high-profile and respected figure within the game.”

How many other sliding-doors moments might be out there? I ask because amid all the important and overdue discussions about the lack of diversity in the game’s boardrooms and management, another topic is being overlooked: the lack of British Asian players on the pitch. While there are the odd exceptions, such as Neil Taylor at Aston Villa or Hamza Choudhury at Leicester, you can count the number of British Asians in Premier League history on one hand. It is not much different lower down the pyramid. Klivington notes that while a quarter of the 3,700 professional players are black, only 0.25% are British Asian.

a football player on a field: Jhai Dhillon (right) in action for Panjab FA in a 2018 friendly against Liverpool Under-23s.

© Photograph: Nick Taylor/Liverpool FC/Getty Images
Jhai Dhillon (right) in action for Panjab FA in a 2018 friendly against Liverpool Under-23s.

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Forty years ago, the reflex response was that kids of south Asian heritage preferred cricket and hockey. That no longer holds, if it ever did. One University of Manchester survey found that 60% of British Bangladeshi boys played football regularly, along with 43% of British Pakistanis and 36% British Indians – similar numbers, in fact, to the 47% of young white boys.

Others will say that south Asian communities have never wanted to integrate in the game. Only that isn’t true either. Academics have found that many British Asians “attempted to join white clubs during the 1960s and 1970s but they were met with a non-welcoming exclusionary policy, with many being verbally and physically assaulted”. Is it any wonder that many set up their own teams and leagues?

Another stereotype that lingers, according to Klivington, is that the “British Asian ‘body’ is perceived to be paradoxical to ‘football bodies’”. That is another head-scratcher, given the game caters for just about every shape and size, from Peter Crouch to Adebayo Akinfenwa to Ryan Fraser.

Yet the myth persists. Klivington says that a white coach at a professional club also once told him: “They don’t like physical contact, I think that’s their problem. Why are they good at cricket?”

At this point somebody is bound to say that if a player is good enough they will make it, regardless of skin colour. That is no doubt correct if you are a Lionel Messi or Raheem Sterling, a diamond that shimmers from an early age. But most professionals have needed help to make it: whether it is continuous support from an FA coach, a tip-off to a league club, or a manager giving them a contract over a rival player. Small differences often have big consequences.

Jhai Dhillon, a talented left-back previously at Chelsea’s academy and Stevenage, knows this all too well. He felt he could have been a contender only for luck and a lack of opportunities to go against him. In his view, Asian players are still regarded as a gamble by many clubs – and it needs more role models to change their minds. “It was similar with black players in the 1970s before Viv Anderson started for England,” he added. “That changed people’s perceptions.”

Dhillon, who is now a semi-professional at Hitchin having launched his own meal prep business, Rice n Spice, said that while he had not experienced overt racism, it was clear that some coaches and scouts were subconsciously influenced by skin colour. “It sounds bad,” he added. “But if they see a big black lad he will think: ‘Oh, he’s a striker or centre-half.’ If they see a technical white player they think: ‘Oh yeah, he’ll be No 10.’ But then they see me or other Asians and it’s like: ‘Where is he going to play?’ A lot of times Asians are seen as not physically fit enough, which is why I always made sure I was one of the hardest working players on the team.”

A few years ago the FA asked Sport Equals, the UK’s leading charity for racial equality and diversity, to set up a series of focus groups with Asian communities to suggest ways to bring more players into the game. Tackling racism on the pitch and off was seen as vital, along with a better scouting system and more funding for coaching for young Asian kids.

Some of those consulted felt their own communities could do more, too. In Luton, for instance, it was pointed out that some Asian parents saw the game as simply a hobby or social experience and did not always provide support – and that “the cultural and religious barriers associated with lack of parental consent make it difficult for Asian women and girls to break through”. That research played a part in the FA’s inclusion plan, yet progress was mixed even before the Covid-19 related cuts to budgets.

As far back as 2011, meanwhile, Klivington spoke to a British Bangladeshi who played semi-professional football and who told him: “I sit on a number of panels and think: ‘We were here last time talking about the same thing, but what has actually happened? What has actually been implemented?’ Nothing.” Nearly a decade on, those pleas must finally be heard.

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