Why we still need to talk about Asians in football

Posted by sb661 at Sep 05, 2014 12:25 AM |
Mr John Williams, Senior Lecturer, Department of Sociology discusses the question by many people: why are there still no British Asians represented at the highest levels of governance in the game, following the UK Asian Football Championships final in Glasgow.

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Last week, as an ambassador and research advisor with Sporting Equals, I visited Celtic Park in Glasgow on Sunday 31 August for an early season football event. What a day it was: lovely late August sunshine; three vast tiers of green seats rising like a great tiered wall in front of us; a pitch like a proverbial carpet; spacious players’ changing rooms; and mahogany panelled corridors. We got to see all the works. The stadium still holds vivid memories of the Celtic club’s 1967 European Cup win. The trophy is proudly on show in the club cabinets, a vivid reminder of the lost power of the local – all Celtic’s victorious players were born within 20 miles of the stadium – and, one has to say, of changing times in Scottish football.

I was sitting in the director’s box surrounded by local dignitaries but also, you might be surprised to hear, by a host of football fanatics speaking with English accents, wearing different coloured turbans and sporting lush beards. Some were from my own city of Leicester.

The occasion was the UK Asian Football Championships final, which has been held in Glasgow, largely unheralded outside the city, for the past 16 years. The event is organised by SEMSA, the Scottish Ethnic Minority Sports Association, in association with local sports and culture providers Glasgow Life. SEMSA’s charismatic President, Dilawer Singh, was not selling his star event lightly, not as bit of it. He commented that Scotland continues to ‘the hub of the sports world’ in 2014: recently the Commonwealth Games, later golf’s Ryder Cup and now… the UK Asian Football tournament.

And this is not just an empty boast. After all, Rangers and Celtic football clubs have acted as alternate hosts for the Asian football championships for many years and the visitors have the run of the facilities, all free of charge. Their more corporate English neighbours might take note. Rangers’ community staff actively supports the Celtic hosting, and vice versa. Indeed, this is the sort of ethnic sports gathering which lies outwith the traditional Scottish religious differences, so it can even bring Glasgow’s usually warring football factions together in co-operation, at least for a short period.

It was a fantastic occasion. In front of a small, but vocal, crowd FC Khalsa from Leicester lost 0-2 in a hard fought contest to Singh Sabha Hounslow. The latter, especially, had talented players worth another look. Top South Asian outfits from Halifax, Derby, Wolverhampton and Glasgow had also been involved in the competition, clubs willing and able to pay the £1200 entry fee required. This covered part of the costs of their squad’s three-night stay north of the border.

A number of the competing clubs in Glasgow reported that they had decided to withdraw from domestic cup competitions and local fixtures, including the FA Vase, in order to take part in the Glasgow championships. Khalsa FC has itself been hosting its own KFF UK Asian football tournament in Leicester for 34 years now: 90% of squad players must be of South Asian origin to qualify. But this English event does not have its finale, mid-season, in a top flight stadium, one reason why Khalsa coach Tali Atwal described playing in Glasgow as ‘One of the major events of our season.’ Khalsa had won the 2013 Glasgow final, so could now claim to be up there among the premier, primarily South Asian, football clubs in Britain.

The question why, in 2014, separate developments like these are still valued – and perhaps needed – in British football for South Asians re-emerged at the latest FA Asians in Football Consultation Forum, which was held at Leicester GNG’s impressive new Riverside Park venue on the outskirts of the city on September 4th. This was just a few days after the Glasgow final. A large group of locals turned up to discuss new FA inclusion plans for: new development centres and new means of supporting local clubs; developing women and girls football centres; and improving communications between the FA HQ at Wembley and other cities in England. All these initiatives were being promoted by the FA to aim specifically at the South Asian community.

In the workshops which followed there was some feverish debate. Some Leicester people wondered aloud why they, British born people from a South Asian heritage, had been singled out – ‘ring-fenced’ as they put it – for ‘special’ attention by the FA. After all, South Asian people in Leicester and elsewhere wanted the same opportunities and to be treated in exactly the same way as anybody else. Why did this so impossible to achieve? Others asked, not unreasonably, why so little seems to have changed in the professional game for South Asians over the past 20 years. Some recalled similar events held in Leicester under a New Labour administration back in 1998, also aimed at addressing racism and exclusion in football. What had happened since?

A Commission for Racial Equality survey conducted in 2004 found just seven professional British Asian footballers registered at clubs in England and Wales; the same survey also found only ten young British Asian players based at Premier League Academies. By February 2008 the number of South Asians registered as football professionals had dropped to five, and less than 1 in 100 young players in Premier League and Football League Academies were of South Asian origin. Incredibly few British South Asian players have made an impact at the professional level in England, though ex-Huddersfield Town midfield player Adnan Ahmed is one of those who have played for the Pakistan national team.

So, some Leicester attendees argued, wasn’t this latest FA event, its visit to Riverside Park just another, rather derisory, talking shop: a tick box exercise simply to satisfy the football authorities and its many critics? Few people at the event had seen or heard of the FA’s new e-quarterly newsletter on Asians in Football. They wanted to be involved in fashioning change, not just consulted: called in after everything already seems to have been decided. They want a real say in what happens next – though the FA would say, of course, that this is precisely the point of the forums.

Some cynicism might be expected here: change in the game for British Asians has indeed been glacially slow. Though the quality of the facility now run by GNG shows that, at the local level at least, change has been occurring for Asian clubs. New local targets for the recruitment of more Black and Asian coaches and referees, and new-style disciplinary panels in local football, also offer hope that instances of racism will now be dealt with properly in local football. Some coaches at professional clubs also reported, at Riverside, that there are growing numbers of young South Asian boys attached to local professional clubs. More Asian girls are also beginning to play football in Leicestershire, even if they could sometimes do with just a little more encouragement from their local male clubs. Something seems to be stirring.

The FA’s much-trumpeted new Inclusion and Anti-Discrimination plan has many good ideas and impressive promises, and it offers specific proposals for promoting Asian male and female role models and for seeking to diversify the pool of Asian recruitment officers responsible for talent identification. This might mean, at least, that talented South Asian players of the future might be scouted by professional clubs rather more effectively than they have been in the past. The reality is they also face global competition today for a career in football that is pretty intense.

But, as some Leicester contributors pointed out, what the FA plan palpably does not discuss is something that, for many people, is at the very heart of this matter: why are there still no British Asians represented at the highest levels of governance in the game? The sense expressed here that ‘they’ continue to make decisions about ‘us’ is a very powerful and emotive one. It suggests marginalisation and the perpetuation of exclusion rather than the inclusion promised, and apparently so sought after, by the FA.

This kind of representation for people from a South Asian background would change what new FA chairman Greg Dyke himself recently described as the ‘overwhelmingly male and overwhelmingly white’ profile of the FA top brass. He seems to get just how important this is. Until South Asians really believe that the FA speaks for them and not at them, there is likely to be plenty of mileage left in events such as the, rather wonderful, UK Asian Football Championships.

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