Offside

'Trying to cajole Asians to participate in football smacks of cultural engineering.'

Duleep Allirajah

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‘Why are there no Asian footballers in the Premier League?’ people often ask. The fashionable answer is ‘racism’.

But this explains nothing – it’s like saying ‘society is to blame’. If racism is to blame, how is it that 15 to 20 percent of professional footballers are Afro-Caribbean? Black players first established themselves in the professional game in the 1970s in spite of widespread racial abuse, not in its absence. And when there are so many foreign players in English football, why would clubs want to exclude Asians?

There are now concerted efforts to attract Asians to football. Last week a Home Office working group recommended penalties to discourage racist behaviour in school and local league football (1). A number of professional clubs are actively cultivating links with their local Asian communities. Bradford City has appointed a dedicated Asian scout, and West Ham runs a coaching project for Asians in east London.

But Geoffrey Wheatcroft, in a recent article for the UK Guardian, has lambasted what he calls the ‘misguided campaign for Asians to play football’ (2). ‘Is there any reason’, Wheatcroft asks, ‘why a particular group should be encouraged – or merely expected – to play any particular sport?’. I agree. Trying to cajole Asians to participate in football does smack of cultural engineering. When, as a youngster, I kicked a ball against a wall for hours after school it was not because a ‘football in the community officer’ told me to (though admittedly my mother sometimes told me to, so she could get some peace and quiet).

Wheatcroft’s explanation that Asians don’t play football for ‘historical and cultural reasons’ is, however, wrong. The truth is that Asians need no encouragement to play football. A 1991 study found that 60 percent of Bengalis in Britain played football compared with only 47 percent of whites and 34 percent of Afro-Caribbeans (3). It is estimated that there are 300 football teams playing in the Asian leagues. These separate structures were set up as a reaction to racism in the 1970s and 80s. And herein lies the answer to the riddle.

Separation might have cushioned Asian footballers from the racist hostility they faced in mainstream park football, but it also hampered their development. The standard of competition in the Asian leagues was invariably weaker and deprived promising Asian players of the chance to test and improve their skills against the best of their peers.

It is also true that the Asian leagues were ignored by league scouts. But Asian players were not the only ones overlooked by antiquated scouting arrangements. Although several hundred overseas professionals ply their trade in the UK, few clubs have any scouting presence in Europe. Foreign players, often past their sell-by date (stand up Chelsea), are usually introduced to British clubs through agents.

After years of neglect, the scramble by league clubs for Asian footballers has finally begun. As a consequence, Asians are now emerging in the youth and reserve teams of top clubs. And only now, because they are testing themselves against the best of their contemporaries, will Asians take the step up to professional football.

(1) Working Group on Football Disorder, Report and Recommendations, March 2001

(2) Guardian, 8 March 2001

(3) Cited in Black Footballers in Britain, Sir Norman Chester Centre for Football Research at Leicester University

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