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Bradford’s miracle cup run

A breakthrough for British Asians in sport.

A fairy tale is unfolding in West Yorkshire. Bradford City are on their way to Wembley for the Capital One Cup final, the scalps of Arsenal as well as Aston Villa and Wigan making them the first ever team from the fourth tier of English football to reach a major cup final there. Some 38,000 tickets for the match on 24 February were snapped up in days; the club could have sold 100,000. So potent is the strange cup magic that the Daily Mail, seeing a young woman wearing a hijab and a City scarf, couldn’t resist a headline celebrating how “Bradford’s fantasy cup run is helping unite multicultural society on the terraces”.

On a chilly Saturday afternoon, the Wembley fairy tale remains a distant fortnight away. The team’s promotion rivals Gillingham are in town. The manager, Phil Parkinson, issues dutiful sermons about focusing on the league but his players know a red card or injury could mean missing the biggest game of their career. “Get your minds off Wembley,” yells a voice from the top of the large Kop in the second half. “You’ve talked of nothing else all day yourself,” comes the retort. Gillingham score a scrappy goal and win 1-0. Disappointed fans file out, comparing Wembley tickets and travel plans.

There are 11,000 here, double the average crowd for the rest of the division. The ground looms over inner-city Manningham, an Asian district of terraced houses. You wouldn’t guess, looking around, that Bradford’s population is more than a quarter Asian but the big cup tie crowds against Arsenal and Aston Villa were more mixed.

Mahesh Johal, a 24-year-old season ticket-holder, says any progress has been gradual; but he has never experienced racism from fellow fans. “Once, a City fan came up and congratulated me, saying the club needs more Asian fans. I was just sat reading the fanzine at the time, so I was a bit taken aback.”

Bradford fans rejected racism early, back in football’s bad old days. Having two enormously popular black players as early as 1971 helped. Dave Pendleton, a railway signalman who curates the club museum, shows me a portrait of Ces Podd, which has pride of place in the Corn Dolly pub. His 565 appearances from 1970 to 1984 remain a club record. “Ces was a legend. That set the tone. There was an element, too, of whatever Leeds United are, we’re not.” (In the 1970s, the National Front was active among Leeds fans.)

If role models matter, Zesh Rehman being captain of both Bradford and Pakistan three years ago could have been a winning formula to build local Asian support. But the team needed to win. “He was a half-decent player trying to lead a struggling team,” says Mahesh Johal. Rehman now plays in Hong Kong but his brother Riz Rehman, a former Brentford professional, leads the Zesh Rehman Foundation, which uses football to bring communities together. He welcomes the Wembley spotlight but thinks that a few years of bringing children from Bradford’s often starkly segregated schools together will matter more.

The relative absence of British Asians from British sport has puzzled those who have studied it. Team GB was celebrated for representing multi-ethnic Britain but few noticed that only one and a half of Team GB’s 556 competitors were of British- Asian origin: the badminton star Rajiv Ouseph and the Swansea left-back Neil Taylor, proud of his mixed heritage, born in Wales to an Indian mother. Earlier medals won in hockey by Imran Sherwani and in boxing by Amir Khan had less impact than some had hoped. Despite Monty Panesar’s wicket-taking heroics for England in India, most kids in Bradford are playing football. The breakthrough always seems just around the corner.

Since the local team made the final, Bana Gora, who runs the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s Bradford programme, has seen her nephews – “diehard Man United fans” – decked out in the full Bradford strip. She says that Wembley is coming at a good time. “What people don’t realise is how things have calmed down over the last five years,” she says, referring to the image of conflict that the city gained after the 2001 riots.

All of Bradford has followed the cup run, says Sabbiyah Pervez, who took part in the Channel 4 documentary Make Bradford British. She cheerfully admits to being clueless about football. “We are a family of proud Bradfordians. For me, this is about taking part in the city’s pride,” she says.

Club colours will spring up outside houses, shops and, perhaps, churches and mosques, too. Alyas Karmani, a local councillor and imam at the Camden Terrace mosque, tells me: “I’ll don a claret-and-amber scarf. We’ll definitely have a shout-out for Bradford at Wembley at Friday prayers.” And why not? It is only one more minor miracle that Bradford need.

Sunder Katwala is director of the think tank British Future

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: ten years on