Asians Can Play Football – Nearly another decade on!

“The Asian build is not that of a footballer…it may well be Asian ingredients in food, or the nutrition they intake, [but it is] not ideal for building up a physical frame” (the then Sheffield Utd manager Dave Basset, BBC TV 1995)

The quote above sparked a report published in 1996 by Jas Bains and Raj Patel titled ‘Asians Can’t Play Football’ which was seen as an important breakthrough in reflecting both the frustrations and the aspirations of a section of the British community that seemed to be largely alienated by a sport they were so passionate about.

In 2001 the Census put the percentage of Asians (Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi) at 4% of the total population and in 2011 that figure rose to 5.5%. If we roll back to 1996 it was estimated the figure of young Asian players connected to English professional clubs to be a tiny 0.2%, but by late 2004 it had barely improved, rising only to 0.8% in Academies at Premier League Clubs.

When it comes to British Asians playing with any degree of regularity there is one in the Premier League (Swansea City defender Neil Taylor), one in the Championship (Blackpool forward Michael Chopra) and one in the lower divisions (Wolves defender Danny Batth). There are another five players on professional contracts, only one of whom, Walsall’s Malvind Benning, has made a first-team appearance, and three more on scholar terms. That is a mere 11 in total.

It is clear to see that there is a huge disparity between the total number of Asians who are resident in the UK and the number that are breaking through the football ranks. As far back as 1991 a Manchester University survey found that young Asian males had amongst the highest rates of participation in football of any ethnic grouping. 60% of Bangladeshi, 43.1% of Pakistanis and 36.5% of Indians boys played football. The same survey found that 47% of young ‘white caucasian’ boys played regularly.

So what are the obstacles in the way for the British Asians to break into the ranks of the football leagues? We have all heard the reasons why Asians don’t make it; Asian parents want their kids to be doctors; Asian kids are too weak; Asians prefer cricket; the Asian diet is unsuitable for a professional sportsman.

Don’t these cultural stereotypes all sound familiar? Weren’t Black players haunted by cultural stereotypes, no more poignant then Ron Atkinson’s description of French defender Marcel Desailly; “He’s what is known in some schools as a F***ing lazy thick n****r”

If we look back over history we can see that times can change. The cultural landscape of British football has changed dramatically for Black players in the game. Forty years ago there were hardly any black players in the game now many Premiership squads could field a starting XI of Black players.

So what needs to change for Asian players to break through the ranks and establish themselves as Premiership players? Zesh Rehman, who made 21 Premier League appearances for Fulham between 2004 and 2006, believes that British Asians need to come out of their comfort zone and play in competitive leagues with players from other backgrounds;

“It can be said though that Asians don’t help themselves by playing in Asian-only leagues. I can understand the reasons as to why they were set up but the Football Association should promote mixed leagues rather than communities setting up their own teams for their own people.”