Tuesday, June 18, 2024

British South Asians in football: Investigation into why there are so few players and how to solve the problem

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It is one of English football’s most puzzling problems. More than four million people with South Asian heritage live in the UK. But only 22 male players out of
approximately 3,700 professionals, have South Asian backgrounds. The women’s game faces similar problems.

Through data analysis, special access and interviews with those in the game, Sky Sports News has carried out a year-long investigation into why British South Asian communities have so few players in elite football and how to solve the problem.

What are the myths?

There are many myths and stereotypes about British South Asian talent that continue to hinder the progress of players.

The most common is that British South Asians prefer cricket over football.

But the latest full Active Lives survey from Sport England in 2021/22 showed more than twice as many British South Asians adults played football than cricket. Using FA participation data, Sky Sports News estimates that 6.5 per cent and 11.4 per cent of male and female grassroots footballers are South Asian.

So why does the myth continue?

“People take on board what they see on TV. The most powerful cricketing country is India because of the IPL, but when you look at international football, we are nowhere. People are reflecting what they see, then internalising it, and that becomes their perspective on the world,” says Piara Powar, executive director of the Fare network (formerly Football Against Racism in Europe).

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Another interlinked myth is that Asian families want their kids to focus more on education.

For Arun Kang, head of the charity Sporting Equals, which looks at race equality in sport, this may have been the case in the 1950s and 1960s when older generations came to the UK and tried to get established, but it is certainly not the case now.

“They all want to be doctors, lawyers, accountants. Give me a break! That’s not what it is anymore. There are fourth generation South Asians in this country and we can’t find one Premier League footballer. It’s embarrassing to be honest.”

Sanjay Bhandari, chair of Kick It Out since 2019, added that many parents have had scouts tell them: ‘Why should I waste time on your kid when you’re going to want them to be an accountant, a doctor or a lawyer?’ One of those was a top-six club.

However, for Powar the myth that angers him most is that the South Asian diet doesn’t produce professional athletes of football players.

Powar said: “I think this is the most racist thing I’ve heard in a long time actually, because it’s sort of hitting at the core of an identity.”

Dr Daniel Kilvington, an expert on British South Asian communities and English football, believes this myth has led many in football to still believe that Asian players are not physical enough for the professional game.

He said: “A lot of recruiters, talent ID personnel and coaches have said over the years: ‘British South Asians are very technical, very good, but not big enough to compete.’ Unfortunately, I think that mindset is still ingrained in a lot of people.”

Riz Rehman, who has worked at the Professional Footballers Association (PFA) for 10 years, added: “I will tell coaches about being patient with players. The game has changed and players are all sorts of sizes now. What we need is more visibility. When a coach looks at an Asian player, what’s he really seeing? He doesn’t know what he’s going to be like.”

Does racism still exist?

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Part two of Football’s Hidden Talent explores the impact of racism on British South Asian footballers

The most high-profile example of these outdated views being ingrained came in 2020, when Greg Clarke resigned as FA chairman after making what he described as “unacceptable comments” to MPs during a Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee.

They included: “If you go to the IT department at the FA, there’s a lot more South Asians than there are Afro-Caribbeans. They have different career interests.”

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A post by Michael Verguizas on LinkedIn was criticised by Sanjay Bhandari

In January of this year, Crystal Palace pre-academy scout Michael Verguizas, wrote on LinkedIn: “Asian families put all their efforts into education plus their [sic] more aligned to the game of cricket… Don’t think it’s pushed in their families or in their culture…Boys following this sport are far and few in this industry.”

Kick It Out chair Bhandari slammed the comments as “lazy racist stereotyping” and added it was unusual to have “the confidence/ignorance to commit that thought to writing in a public platform.”

Verguizas later deleted the comment. Crystal Palace told Sky Sports News they discussed the matter with the scout and he was given training in equality, diversity and inclusion like all employees. The club would not comment publicly because they say it is an internal matter.

According to research conducted in 2023 by Kick It Out and the FA, “Asian participants in football are deemed to be most likely to experience discriminatory abuse based on ethnic origin.”

Goalkeeper Rohan Luthra, who has Punjabi heritage, was racially abused by Cardiff team-mate Jack Simpson on a pre-season tour last year.

Simpson publicly apologised in November – after a six-match suspension, £8,000 fine and an education order was given to the player by an FA independent regulatory commission.

Simpson has since signed for Leyton Orient and their chief executive Mark Devlin told Sky Sports News that the club spoke to the Punjabi O’s (Orient’s official Punjabi supporters group) before sealing the deal.

He said: “This was a player that they were going to have to cheer on the pitch. Did they feel comfortable about cheering him on given his background and the error that he’d made?

“They were very keen to meet Jack, and they have met Jack now on a couple of occasions and continue to talk to him. I took on board their feelings, their comments, their opinions. I think so far – from what we’ve seen of Jack – we’ve made the right decision.”

How is football tackling the problem?

Throughout the filming of Football’s Hidden Talent, it was clear that there is a desire across football from all levels to make changes that lead to increased participation of British South Asians at the professional level.

A key theme that emerged is the importance of clubs being active in South Asian communities.

In Burnley, around 14 per cent of the population have South Asian heritage. In an exclusive interview, Burnley manager Vincent Kompany was asked about the best way to find hidden talent on the town’s doorstep.

He said: “Just making sure you have a presence, making sure you reach out, getting the buy-in from the communities as well … you then get more association with the game and eventually you’ll have successful players.”

Dave Rainford, head of Education and Academy Player Care at the Premier League, believes finding the best players with South Asian heritage will keep the Premier League the best in the world.

“If we want our game to stay ahead and the Premier League to be the world’s best league and the EFL to be one of the best pyramids in world football we know we have to keep evolving our talent pool.”

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Part three of Football’s Hidden Talent reveals the first British South Asian player to play in the Premier League, and also includes interviews with Jimmy Carter, Dr Permi Jhooti, Aman Dosanj, Neil Taylor and Hamza Choudhury

The governing bodies all have their own programmes aimed at boosting participation numbers.

  • The Premier League launched its South Asian Action Plan (SAPP) in 2022 to address the under-representation of British South Asian players within the Academy system. It has an initial focus on the Under-9 to Under-11 age groups.

  • The EFL does not have its own South Asian Action Plan but in 2022 launched its Equality, Diversity and Inclusion strategy called ‘Together’.

  • The PFA also has its Asian Inclusion Mentoring Scheme (AIMS). The network is designed to help those at all levels of the professional game and is widely praised by many current players, ex-players, and other football stakeholders.

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Part four of Football’s Hidden Talent explores the views of academies, coaches, and the boardroom in the search for British South Asian footballers

For those looking from the outside, how do they assess the work done by football’s key stakeholders?

Kang says: “They need to collaborate better. There are some really good initiatives that take place but some are just window dressing do go deep enough into the problems.

“For example, a football festival focused towards South Asian or ethnically diverse communities. Well, what next? Are there any pathways for individuals to then join clubs?

“I feel it’s a little bit of a tick box. ‘Look, what we did for those communities.’ They should appreciate what we’ve just done for you and that for me is a bit window dressing and I think we need to stop doing those types of initiatives.”

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Featuring over 20 interviews the documentary Football’s Hidden Talent is also available on YouTube and On Demand

Dal Darroch, Head of Diversity and Inclusion Strategic Programmes at the Football Association, agrees more collaboration is needed.

He said: “We’ve already started to have conversations about how we bring the whole thing together and I think that will continue.

“There’s been attempts in the past. They haven’t always worked. We should definitely do more of that cross-collaboration, pooling resources and operating in a way that we complement each other.”

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Part five of Football’s Hidden Talent looks at religion, the cost of playing, mixed heritage players, and a Premier League manager talks about how to find hidden talent

Should football set targets?

Many clubs across the men and women’s game have committed to diversity targets for coaching and leadership positions as part of the Football Leadership Diversity Code. But should these targets be extended to include players?

It is a proposal the Premier League is not completely ruling out but they are prioritising seeing the impact of their current work.

Director of Football at the Premier League Neil Saunders says: “We are focusing on the inputs firstly through these ‘Emerging talent festivals’ (held around the country) and increasing the opportunities for players and their families to experience a Premier League event.

“Also through our work with the club staff, whether it be through increasing their understanding around some of the challenges and barriers that exist, but also raising awareness around the competitive advantage that maybe exists in that untapped talent pool of boys from South Asian heritage.”

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The FA director of DEI Yasir Mirza says that reaching out to diverse communities in a safe way is a long-term goal

David McArdle, the EFL’s Director of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, explained they have not set a blanket target for all clubs as communities across the country vary.

He said: “What a lot of clubs pushed back on is, you’re putting a quota on us that doesn’t reflect who we are as a community.

“But we are challenging the clubs to be reflective of their population. So when a club comes to us and says their population is nine per cent South Asian but they are sitting at four per cent in the academy, one of the things that we expect to see in the EDI plan is how they are going to make up that five per cent.

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Former Norwich, Coventry and Nottingham Forest player Robert Rosario reacts with delight as he learns he was the first player of South Asian heritage to play in the Premier League

But Darroch believes now could be the time for targets.

He said: “I think there is some merit in potentially clubs being – not forced – but kind of looking at doing things slightly differently.

“So if there is a target in place it potentially would lead them to start thinking of different ways in which they can engage a wider pool of players.

“I don’t think that is a bad idea. I think it’s one that clubs, the Premier League, and the EFL, some of those that are responsible for recruitment, could consider.”

What happens next?

Since filming this documentary Sky Sports News has learned the FA is bringing English football together to regularly discuss South Asian inclusion. This work is ongoing and is part of its ambition to increase collaboration between key football stakeholders where they have similar programmes.

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The final part of Football’s Hidden Talent hears from the Premier League, EFL, FA, PFA and Kick It Out and asks what more can be done to find the next generation of British South Asian footballers?

In their interviews for the documentary the Premier League, EFL, and PFA spoke about the importance of collaboration and working together. They also said they remain willing to listen and work with South Asian communities to help deliver their programmes and ensure more diversity on the pitch.

As the work continues, football’s biggest stakeholders will be trying to find answers to the simple words from women’s footballer Kira Rai.

The talent’s out there, so why are we not finding it…”

Watch Football’s Hidden Talent on Sky Sports Football on Sunday May 26 at 6.30pm.

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