Michael Chopra is having a bad season. The Sun derland striker has scored only three goals in the Premier League since August. It’s a bad run of form for any player, but for Chopra the pressure is unusually intense. He’s not just playing for himself or his team: as the first and only British-born Asian among the more than 400 Premiership players, he is, in effect, playing to break down a wall of race prejudice that’s keeping Asians out of top-flight British football.
This month, the 18-year-old Walsall left-back Netan Sansara described how, when he started playing for the club, he used to get called “Paki”, even by other players in his own team. “A lot of people don’t realise that it goes on. Even now, I don’t think people at Walsall know what I went through,” he told the Sunday Times. “They said it was just banter and eventually I tried to accept that, because if you complain too much people can say, ‘He’s using it as an excuse.’ But ‘Paki?’ Banter? No chance.”
Apart from Chopra and Sansara, there is barely a handful of Asian players at any pro fessional level in the British game. Jas Bains, author of the report Asians Can Play Football: a Wasted Decade, argues that “within the Asian footballing community there is a feeling that the FA as a governing body has failed successive generations of young talented footballers of Asian background.
“The pitifully low num bers of Asian professionals, set against the huge interest and passion for the sport within the com munity, are symbolic of the way in which football has discrimina ted [Asians] out of the game through stereotyping and a lack of action to address this issue.”
Indeed, so gloomy are the prospects for Asian players in the UK that some are going overseas for recognition. When Pakistan played Iraq in the World Cup qualifier last October, it fielded four British-born players, all of whom had originally had ambitions to play for England. Hamant Ver ma, editor of the newspaper Eastern Eye, says he hopes that these four players’ success won’t lead more Asians to turn their back on trying for the England team – a move he feels would “play into the hands of those who still trot out Norman Tebbit’s fatuous cricket test”.
Cricket itself also alienates British Asian fans and players, argues Raj Kaushal, founder of Snoop, a British-Asian lifestyle magazine. In 2006, for instance, Yorkshire County Cricket Club fielded Adil Rashid after Darren Lehmann pulled a muscle: this made Rashid only the second Yorkshire-born player of Asian extraction to play for the club in a championship game. Given the substantial south Asian presence in Yorkshire’s towns and cities, and Asians’ passionate interest in the game, this hardly sends out a positive message, notes Kaushal.
The same is true of rugby. Ikram Butt was the first Asian to represent England when he was selected for the European Rugby League Championship in 1995. He later founded the British Asian Rugby Association. “Rac ism does play a big part in deterring young Asians joining a club,” he believes. “I’ve experien ced it myself. I’ve been called a Paki by spectators and have felt sometimes that I wasn’t getting far because I was Asian. But until we see an Asian football player in the Premier League, or more Asians in cricket, we won’t see many at all in rugby.”
“In Rugby League, the racism was right in your face in its nastiest form – on the field, from the touchline – but you, and your teammates, could deal with it,” says Jaz Athwal, who gave up rugby for golf after encountering vicious racism on the touchline and the pitch. When he became captain of Waterton Park in Wakefield in 2000 he was the first Asian golf captain in the country. He found, however, that the same attitudes were at the heart of the more genteel sport.
“In golf, it’s more subtle. Sometimes you arrive at a golf club and you are greeted by the club professional knocking on your car window, saying: ‘Can I help you?’ My answer is always: ‘No, thanks, I get out of my car every day on my own.’ Do they greet everybody who comes to their club like that – in the car park, before they have even got out of the car? Do they think we’re going to run away with the holes, or set up a corner shop on every tee?” Asian golfers enquiring about membership are often told a club is full or has a lengthy waiting list, he explains. A steward at one club in West Yorkshire told Athwal that not only would he never be able to join, but neither would his children’s children.
On 16 February, the inaugural British Asian Sports Awards are being held in London, with 23 nominees in eight categories, from Young Sports Personality to Outstanding Achievement Award.
A quarter of those nominated are football players, ranging from eight-year-old Hanif Hussain (top goal scorer at the Manningham Youth Academy, with trials at Scunthorpe and Bradford) to the living personification of Bend It Like Beckham, 15-year-old Vanisha Patel, who captains the Charlton Ladies Under-16s team. Cricket, tennis, chess and badminton players are also included, but another quarter of the Sports Awards nominees come from combat sports – from wrestling and boxing to karate and tae kwon do. Three of them are world class: Amir Khan is the Commonwealth lightweight and IBF light welterweight champion; Jatinder Singh Rakhra will be wrestling for Great Britain in the 2008 Olympics; and Ferrari Faqiri from Preston is the junior world tae kwon do champion.
The rise of young Asians in combat sports stems, inevitably, from street racism. “People got into self-defence in the Seventies and Eighties because we had to,” says the awards organiser, Rajan Singh. “We all started taking karate and judo, then gradually you’d find Asian black belts or boxers opening their own gyms. Once you saw a role model like Amir Khan come along, all the enthusiastic youngsters started pursuing the sports side as well as the self-defence. So now you’ve got great young boxers like Akash Bhatia. Frank Maloney says he’s better than Amir – but even he is struggling to find a sponsor.”
Singh hopes the awards will help change the position of Asians in the sporting arena, arguing that publicity based around Asian sporting talent can only help persuade clubs of their value. He says he believes the situation has improved since he was a soccer-mad youngster.
“I’d go and see Leicester in my suedehead haircut and crombie in the early Seventies, but by 1977 with the rise of the National Front and terrace racism, it became impossible to go to games,” he explains. “I started playing in a local Indian team, and we’d play all-white pub sides then end up fighting them in the car park.
“These days, if you look at local leagues, teams are mixed white, black and Asian. There’s no violence during or after games. It’s a completely different environment at grass-roots level. It’s just that there’s resistance at the clubs and we have to overcome that by providing role models and proving Asian players are as good as all the rest,” Singh says.
Indeed, if there is any consolation, it comes from the fans. The Dagenham and Redbridge captain, Anwar Uddin, plays for a team in an area where the BNP is the second-largest party on the local council. The party campaigned on an anti-Asian ticket and, although east London clubs such as Dagenham and Redbridge and West Ham have a sizeable Asian fan base, white people are still in a considerable majority. Uddin, however, hasn’t experienced any significant racist abuse. “When it comes to football, as far as the fans are concerned the only colour that matters for that 90 minutes is the colour of your shirt,” he says.
Premiership managers, take note.
Race and sport: Milestones
1881 Guyanese-born Andrew Watson captains Scotland, becoming the first black international footballer
1936 Jesse Owens wins four gold medals at Berlin Olympics
1977 Commonwealth leaders agree to discourage sporting links with apartheid South Africa
1977 Laurie Cunningham becomes first black footballer to play for England
1982 During World Cup finals, the National Front actively recruits at England matches
1999 Founding of Football Against Racism in Europe
2006 England bowler Monty Panesar becomes first Sikh to represent any nation except India in Tests