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26 March 2015

Football is multicultural – but you wouldn’t know it looking at the crowd

"The fact that the majority of players in any Premiership game these days are foreign, and so many of them black, does not seem to have had an appreciable effect on the faces in the crowd."

By Hunter Davies

One of the joys when watching Man United on the telly is looking out for the Sikhs. They sit just behind the dugout at Old Trafford, on the second row, unmistakable with their turbans and beards. Hard to tell their ages and work out whether they are brothers, cousins, fathers or sons. One beard does look a bit greyer than the others.

Normally, there are three, but now and again the camera edges sideways and it looks as though there could be more. Sometimes they are in Man United tops.

I have never seen them interviewed yet all TV footer fans are as familiar with their beards as we are with Wayne’s physog or Fergie’s red face. Fergie at one time used to shake their hands.

Last Saturday, I got invited to Arsenal-West Ham by a friend with several season tickets. In the party was Simon Schama, the historian, who is also a Spurs fan. In that situation you need to keep quiet, give nothing away, but remember to stand up when Arsenal score.

The seats were on the front row, which means you can’t see half the game but you can admire the bevel of the turf and enjoy close-up views of the players. Goodness, Theo Walcott has got a big bum. I never noticed that before. Aerial shots on telly flatten him out, make him appear thinner.

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Last time I was at Arsenal, the crowd was shouting Thee-Oh, Thee-Oh, willing him to come on. Now he was on – and they were groaning. Funny game, football. Mark Noble of West Ham, so strong looking on the box, is all head, with his weedy body out of proportion.

At half-time I stood up and looked behind me, my eyes scanning the rows of faces rising up into the sky. I was looking for the Sikhs. No sign of any. Then I looked for Indian faces. None. Five or six Chinese people. Perhaps a dozen black faces. Quite a few women, with partners or families.

Traditionally, football fans have been male, white and working class, ever since the 19th century when professional football in the industrial heartlands first attracted mass audiences. But if you look at old postcards and photographs, you can always spot women, one or two in each row, waving and cheering. No black faces.

It’s hard to get reliable figures of the ethnic minority make-up of football crowds today – or establish what is meant by ethnic minority – but the latest surveys for the Premiership suggest the ethnic proportion is about 11 per cent. The proportion of women, so they say, is 23 per cent. I find both figures hard to believe. I suspect they are a lot less.

Next to me, at that Arsenal game, was a couple from Latvia. I don’t suppose white Europeans are being counted as ethnic. At top London and Manchester clubs, the foreign element must be fairly high. When I have been in the hospitality suites, I’d estimate that about 40 per cent of the guests are foreign.

Jewish refugees from Europe who first settled in the East End had no time or money to follow football. But the next generation, having moved to north London, picked either Spurs or Arsenal to follow, part of the process of assimilation. There are just as many at either club – ie, a small proportion – despite the image of Spurs as
a Jewish club.

Will the children of today’s immigrants follow football? Will they have the money? It costs a fortune, and you have to know the system, get your name down from birth for a season ticket, or have friends or family contacts to manage the odd game.

Will they want to? Will they feel excluded, that it is not for them? In towns and areas where there is a large proportion of immigrants you still don’t see them at games in any great numbers. It’s an inbuilt cultural thing, inheriting a team with your mother’s milk.

The fact that the majority of players in any Premiership game these days are foreign, and so many of them black, does not seem to have had an appreciable effect on the faces in the crowd. So when I watch Man United at home on the box, I always want to sing, “We three Sikhs of Old Trafford are. . .” Which is very silly.