Dan Kilvington: Tackling absence of Asian faces on football pitch

Should England football manager Gareth Southgate be encouraging the development of more Asian players?Should England football manager Gareth Southgate be encouraging the development of more Asian players?
Should England football manager Gareth Southgate be encouraging the development of more Asian players?
WHERE are the British Asian footballers? Given that British Asians represent seven per cent of the total UK population, double that of the black British population, one would expect there to be as many, if not more, British Asian than black British footballers.

However, that is not the case. While the average fan may be able to reel off names including Paul Ince, Ian Wright and Daniel Sturridge, few would be able to name a single British Asian footballer.

While black players represent over a quarter of the 4,500 professionals in England, British Asian players constitute a mere 0.25 per cent. Just six British Asian footballers between the ages of 16 to 18-years-old were attached to the 72 Football League academies in 2009 out of over 1,300 players. There is only one British Asian coach out of the 522 senior football coaches in England.

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It is this exclusion that I set out to investigate in 2007. A decade later, I have amassed interviews with over 100 players, scouts, coaches, managers and fans. The participants’ stories and experiences have helped counter common-sense assumptions, raise awareness and help create action plans.

There are several common-sense rationales proposed by football’s ‘insiders’ (traditionally white professional scouts, coaches and managers). For example: Asians don’t play football. Asians prefer cricket. Asian parents don’t support their children in football. The Asian community prioritises education, etc. ‘Culture’ is therefore routinely listed as a barrier. This implies that British Asians exclude themselves. Instead of scrutinising how football structures operate, a ‘blaming the blamed’ mindset is adopted.

Now, there are certain grains of truth within the above stereotypes. However, it is important that we do not homogenise the British Asian ‘experience’.

My work has identified a plethora of barriers at all levels. First, overt verbal and physical abuse is often a weekly occurrence which British Asian players and teams encounter. Some of the players I have interviewed opted out due to this hostile and unwelcoming environment.

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Second, hidden forms of racism exist within the talent identification system. Traditionally, scouts visit teams, clubs and leagues which are traditionally known for producing talent. Moreover, because the overwhelming majority of scouts are white, they tend to utilise existing networks. British Asian players therefore play outside the radar.

Third, there are a lack of opportunities in some predominantly British Asian environments. We must understand that for first generation migrants, the aim was to provide security, food and housing for the family. Leisure pursuits was not the priority. Second generation South Asians, however, benefit from this foundation but have had to build leisure and football opportunities from scratch.

There have been several initiatives formed to increase the levels of British Asian involvement across all sectors of the game. For instance, the Football Association (FA) developed the Bringing Opportunities to Communities four-year plan in 2015. Yet, there is still a long way to go.

My work argues that links and networks must be constructed with teams, clubs and leagues within predominantly British Asian spaces. Opportunities for participation must also be developed. Within Bradford, there has traditionally been a lack of opportunities to play football within predominantly British Asian locales. The creation of British Asian coaches, or any coaches working within areas which suffer from decreased opportunities, is needed. These coaches would thus be able to create clubs, join teams and in consequence raise levels of participation.

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This final point led to the formation of Creating and Developing Coaches, which I developed alongside West Riding County FA in 2016. This networking event, which has worked with over 200 coaches, aims to bring together current and aspiring British Asian coaches, as well as other excluded groups, with key stakeholders within football coaching.

Football is a truly global game but it harbours local exclusions. British Asians are still considered disinterested in football while scouts and coaches routinely perceive players as a ‘gamble’. It is promising that this exclusion is now being discussed and action is starting to be observed. However, there is still a long way to go before we can say that football is truly inclusive and equal for all communities.

Dr Dan Kilvington is a senior lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies at Leeds Beckett University.

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