In 2018 a conference heard that many football scouts thought Asian players were only interested in non-contact sports such as cricket, or were physically weaker – writes GARETH ROBERTS
Dr. Dan Kilvington, of Leeds Beckett University, told The British Sociological Association’s annual conference in Newcastle that only 12 out of over 3,700 professional players in England and Wales are of Asian ethnicity, even though British Asians form five percent of the general population.
What are the reasons for this, and how can change be brought about?
We spoke to ANWAR UDDIN, who was the first British Asian to play professionally in England and now juggles managing non-league Glebe FC with working as Diversity and Campaigns Manager for The Football Supporters’ Federation.
“When I signed my first professional contract with West Ham United in 1997 a lot was made of it because I was the first British Asian to do so.
I remember it like it was yesterday, The Evening Standard came to the training ground and did a big piece on me, a double page spread. It was my first big interview.
I remember the first question was, ‘Anwar, why is there a lack of Asian players in football across the board?’.
Twenty years later I am still asked the exact same question and that summarises where we are.
There have been a lot of proactive changes in the game but there are still issues around representation.
I genuinely thought I would break the mould and things would kick on and we would have a lot of British Asians [in the game] because there are so many that play football and love the game across the country.
But it has not been the case and people still refer to the same names, the Anwar Uddins, Zesh Rehmans, Michael Chopra, and have done for 20 years.
It’s disappointing. I always knew it was going to be a slow process, but this slow? It has taken me a bit by surprise to be honest.
It’s not down to a lack of interest in football in the British Asian communities is it?
There is a good representation in the media, TV, film, but when it comes to football it just hasn’t happened. There are a lot of reasons for that, there is no one answer to that question.
When I signed for West Ham in 1997 that kind of coincided with the Premier League boom.
Then you had to be the best in south east England, the best in London, to even be on their radar. Now, 15-17 year olds at the top clubs are not competing with the best in London or the best in south east England, you’re competing with the best in the world because the top teams in the Premier League can go and get players from south America, Australia, Asia, wherever it is. It’s a global market now.
When I came through it was tough, it was competitive, West Ham finished fifth in the Premier League the first year I came through as a pro (1998-99). Then all of a sudden, bang, money was invested in the Premier League, the amount of foreign players increased and it was tough for your everyday English player, regardless of being a British Asian player. That needs to be considered.
Then there’s the cultural support, background, racial discrimination, the subsconscious treatment – there are a lot of factors that go into it. And obviously it’s bloody difficult as well!
Are there specific barriers to entry for British Asians that your average white footballer from England wouldn’t face?
Yes, 100 per cent.
Having been through the system from the Premier League to non-league, having coached and managed, what people underestimate is the changing room.
To play for Liverpool, for example, or be a player at any significant level, it’s tough physically.
You have to have the ability, the skill, the commitment, the discipline. But the changing room is 20 lads, everyone has got an ego, everyone is confident, everyone is macho.
There are going to be people there who may have, let’s say, difficult views, interesting views, about who you are and where you are from. There might be some terminology thrown around, there might be players or people who treat you slightly different to others.
There may be occasions where you can’t socialise because you don’t drink or you can’t go and do certain things. That plays a role as well. For any team to work well it is about bonding, about being together, being a really tight-knit group.
In the Premier League a lot of the players are from all over the world; there is a lot of difference and diversity now. But that hasn’t always been the case and it’s still not the case for grassroots football.
When you’re trying to make it at that level you’ve got to share a dressing room with men. Forget the football side, you expect to be supported, you’ve got to be brothers. That’s a massive thing because if you are ‘different’, and you might do different things, that can play a big role in you thinking ‘I don’t really feel comfortable here’.
If you’re in a changing room, like I was as a kid, and you’re hearing people throw around racist terminology, sharing jokes about people of a certain religion… in 10 minutes I’ve got to go and put a strip on and have your back and work hard for you. It’s not conducive to that togetherness.
There are a lot of Asian players I’ve spoke to that, away from the football side, found that bit really difficult, that social aspect, really bonding and getting together. It’s not through the want of trying, it’s about character.
Sometimes if you are from a underrepresented group – and I hate using the phrase – you have to be a bit thick-skinned because you are going to hear, see and experience things that your average English player wouldn’t experience – and that’s a fact, I’m afraid.
How do we change that? Coaches and managers from a BAME background in the room challenging that behaviour?
Definitely. But I looked at it a certain way as a kid – and I’m having these conversations with myself as a 14,15,16, 17-year-old, and it’s hard enough being the best you can be and trying to get the three points. Yet I’m in a changing room thinking ‘these are all making jokes about people with beards and terrorism and using the p-word and I’m not comfortable with this so I have to be a prominent figure in that changing room or basically just sit there quietly’.
It was a choice I had to make. If I sat there quietly, or didn’t go, or didn’t play I knew that would have had a detrimental effect on me as a player. So I made sure I was loud, I was confident and if someone said something I disagreed with I pulled them up on it.
I found it really difficult to do initially – you’re basically confronting people when you’ve just come to play football.
As individuals we have to acknowledge as a community that there are issues.
Forgot the elite level, I’m talking about a pub team on a Saturday. If you’ve got a group of lads all together and an Asian player comes along and wants to join the team straight away you’re like ‘ok this is a bit different’. But then what can you do as an individual to make him feel welcome? It might mean going a little bit above and beyond, maybe having that chat when you normally wouldn’t, maybe thinking about your behaviour and the way you speak and be conscious of that.
Be conscious that there may be people in these environments who are little bit apprehensive about being there so how can we as individuals make them feel welcome?
That kind of leans into what I do as a job now. It’s what I’ve experienced all my life and I’ve had to battle with that and when I finished playing I knew there was still lots of work to be done and that’s why I’m pleased I’m doing the work I’m doing now.
Plenty of people think they can’t do anything to effect positive change but actually we can all do something, even if it is saying hello to a neighbour or asking them if they’re alright. If they’re slightly different to you, it means a lot, I can tell you that from personal experience – people just want to feel part of whatever it is they’re doing and wherever it is that they’re playing.
Is there a danger that negative experiences of playing football can lead to British Asians becoming insular; playing in their own leagues, and therefore perhaps becoming less likely to make a career in the professional game in the process?
Totally agree. I’m from East London and there we have the biggest Asian football league I think in the country. These are people I grew up with. I support the events, I’m there at the awards and I watch as much football as I can as they’re people I’ve grown up with – and to be fair some of them are better than me!
All they wanted to do was play football, get their boots on, run around, have a craic, score a goal. But if you can’t do that because you’ve got to deal with all this other stuff we’ve just discussed then you’ll play football with people where you don’t have to deal with all of that. It’s logical.
But you create a ceiling for yourself – you’re only going to go so far. You can play and enjoy yourself because you are with like-minded people but the best player in the Asian League scoring 60 goals is irrelevant because what scout is going to take you seriously unless you go into mainstream?
Sometimes you have to put yourself outside your comfort zone. I’m not saying people need special treatment, I didn’t need special treatment. But what I had to acknowledge was I lived in a time where there were no Asian players, no Asian coaches, no Asian physios, no Asian doctors, no Asian staff at any of the football clubs I was at. I’m an anomaly if you like.
I saw it as a positive, I thought wow, wicked, I’m going to get more exposure, more headlines, I’m going to be famous. I thought I was quite fortunate because in 20 years’ time, I hope, or 30 or 40 years’ time, there will be loads of Asians playing across the board and it won’t be an issue we are discussing.
I was quite privileged to be in that position and be able to go to everyone, ‘OK there is this negative narrative around the Asian and Muslim community when none of you have spent any time with, or played with, an Asian or Muslim player. Well I’m going to give you a positive narrative, I’m going to be one of the lads, make you laugh, I’m going to play with my heart on my sleeve’.
When another Asian player or coach walks through the door the only person they can compare them with is me. And if they go, ‘mate, if he’s anything like Anwar, he’s fine’. That’s what I wanted.
It’s not easy though, you’re dealing with a lot of psychological stuff, and let’s face you shouldn’t have to, you just want to be a football player. But it is what it is.
It’s like the first black players in the 70s. Yes, they wanted to play football but they had to deal with the bananas, they had to deal with the racial insults – it’s how it was. You can’t change what thousands of people think but you can say I’m not going to let them stop me doing what I want to do – that’s the toughness I’m talking about.
It’s nothing to do with how good your first touch is, or how fast you are, it’s psychological strength and character.
What do the recent high-profile incidents of racism around football show us? Have we progressed? Have we moved on?
What I’ve seen from fans through my day work is the situation has improved and improved a lot.
A minority will always fill the headlines but we underestimate how big the minority is. The bulk of football fans are brilliant, they get it, but the minority have a big impact.
If that game between Chelsea and Man City [at Stamford Bridge in December 2018] hadn’t been on TV and that incident with Raheem Sterling when he went to get the ball wasn’t televised, no one would be talking about it.
I know about these incidents because I’m dealing with them. Bury away, Morecambe, Accrington, all these random places on a Tuesday night when it’s freezing cold, there are no Sky Sports cameras but there are incidents that get reported that I know about.
For me it’s about how can we dent that minority and how can we make it socially unacceptable.
If someone decides to act in that way what can we do so everyone knows around them that it’s unacceptable and inappropriate? For me that’s the key and fans are doing that, fans are self-policing, fans are calling people out, which is really encouraging to see.
What are the next steps for football?
We need to work collectively, that’s key. Things are improving but we are nowhere near at the end. We are nowhere near a place where we can stop funding campaigns like Kick It Out or Show Racism The Red Card because it’s important that work continues and people are educated about what’s right and what’s wrong.
I feel sorry for football in a way because these are problems that society has; things that happen on our streets, on our buses and trains. These people buy a ticket and go into a football stadium and all of a sudden it’s a football problem.
This is something we need to look at every single day in our communities with our neighbours and with our friends and educate each other. If we can do that, we will see a change. Football can have an influence – it can lead the way in saying this behaviour is unacceptable.
I don’t want football to change. I loved it when I got a bit of abuse about how slow I was, or how rubbish I was from away fans – I loved it. Fans make football what it is all about.
As a player, that’s why you do it, for that roar when you walk out or when you score a goal. But there is a line that you don’t cross in every walk of life and football has to lead by example and say we’re not going to have it here and if it does happen you will be punished accordingly.
Anwar Uddin played for Bristol Rovers, Hereford, Telford, Dagenham & Redbridge, Grays, Barnet and Eastbourne Borough, clocking up more than 300 games before coaching at West Ham, working as a No.2 at Maldon & Tiptree and managing Sporting Bengal United, Ware FC and Glebe.
Follow Anwar on Twitter at: @AnwarU01
Find out more about The Football Supporters’ Federation and The Fans For Diversity Campaign HERE.