Ooh, aah... Jaginder!

Jaginder Singh plays Sunday league football in east London, one of thousands of Asian teenagers across Britain who dream of being heroes of the terraces, like Cantona or Shearer. The obstacles are great - parents, racism, the dismissiveness of professional clubs - but it won't be long, argues Simon Freeman, before kids like Jaginder play for England. Photographs by Sam Piyasena
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Indy Lifestyle Online
There are countless young men in Britain like Mohammed, who know that they should have been playing for Arsenal or Manchester United, earning 20 grand a week, rather than slogging their guts out for a few hundred quid in a factory or on a building site and then turning out for nothing every Sunday morning on muddy council wastelands.

These stars of park football always tell tragic stories - from having a groin strain when the scout from Rangers came, to an alarm clock which didn't go off on the day of the trial with City - but Mohammed Hafesji has a more convincing excuse than most for failing to turn a Sunday passion into a lucrative career: he is Asian.

Mohammed is 23 years old and plays for a team called Roma, based in Clapton, east London. It's in the premier division of the Laurentian Life Asian Sunday Football League, one of a growing number of British leagues organised by, and for, Asians. He is their most feared striker - more than 30 goals last season, despite missing two months with a knee injury - and is an intelligent and modest young man. But he also knows his own ability, and says that, but for the accident of race, he might now be a professional footballer rather than a badly paid youth worker who encourages children to develop their natural talents. He did not have the chance, he says, simply because there are no Asians in big-time football: "It is always difficult to be the first; it's hard to make the breakthrough, isn't it?"

The statistics are indisputable. There are almost two million Asians in Britain. The boys and young men are soccer-crazy. There are at least 300 formally organised Asian teams owing allegiance to the Football Association, and many more which cannot be bothered to register. Yet there is not one Asian in the Premier League or Divisions One, Two and Three of the Football League.

There are many theories why. A recent study by two researchers in the Midlands concludes that young Asian players have to contend with racism within football, where they are viewed as weedy rice-eaters who cannot speak English, and with hostility at home, where parents think that sport can only be cricket or hockey - a relaxation after studying for a career, not an alternative.

Others point to the impact on football of Britain's Afro-Caribbeans. Despite a smaller population of about 620,000, one in four professional players is now black. This demonstrates yet again, say the commentators, the cliche of sport as an escape for the poor and the oppressed - much as Glasgow's slums once produced a string of world-class boxers; that Asians have not made it in football is a reflection of their culture, not a condemnation of the sport. This stereotype portrays Asians as physically frail and insular, who become doctors, lawyers and shop-keepers, not as aggressive professional athletes.

For a few weeks last season, Asians thought that they had found their long-awaited role model when Chris Dolby, aged 20, was signed by Bradford City, then of the Second Division, making him the first Asian professional since Ricky Heppolette played anonymously for Leyton Orient and Preston in the 1970s. But Dolby did not make it. He was injured for much of the season, and had two hernia operations. He was a fast, useful front player, but the club was pushing for promotion and competition for places was intense.

He was also under tremendous pressure from the media, which flocked to Bradford to ask this good-looking young man (nicknamed "Male Model" by this team-mates) for his views on racism in sport when all he wanted to do was get fit and play in the first team.

Any young Asian footballer would have struggled, but Dolby had an additional problem: he had been brought up by white foster parents and was not even sure where his parents had been born (he thinks it was India). He definitely did not see himself as a crusader for Asian rights in football.

At the end of the season, Bradford "released" him - soccer-speak for sacked - and today he is looking for a new club. He says he hopes that Scarborough or Halifax will take him and that everyone will forget that he is Asian: "I just want to play first-team football and prove myself."

Bradford City was just as disappointed as Dolby, mainly because an Asian star would have been a major selling-point with the city's Asian population. But the club's managing director, Shaun Harvey, says that they could not promote Dolby just because of his race. Nonetheless, Harvey is sure Asians will eventually break into top-flight football: "It might take a few more years because football is about pace and power and Asian lads tend to be a bit smaller," he says. "But the game is part of the Asian community's life now, and it's just a matter of time."

Within football there is, undoubtedly, mounting pressure now to recruit Asians, but this has nothing to do with idealism, which has never been very evident in professional sport, and everything to do with clubs who need new, cheap talent in an era when a second-rate wide man costs pounds 5 million.

Although nothing is certain in sport, it is surely inevitable that Asians will soon make an impact on professional football. After all, it is only 18 years since a tall, gangling full-back called Viv Anderson trotted out onto the pitch at Wembley for a match against Czechoslovakia and thus became the first black player to appear for England. Now it would only be remarkable if there were no Afro Caribbeans in the England team.

Brendon Batson, now deputy chief executive of the Professional Footballers's Association, was one of the first black players to break into professional football in the politically-incorrect 1960s, when young blacks were also thought to lack "bottle". As a player at Arsenal, Cambridge and West Bromwich Albion, he says that he was conscious of being a role model for both blacks and Asians. "It's happened now for blacks," he says, "but not for Asians. But I have no doubt that we will see Asians coming through because there is such a pool of untapped talent."

The Football Association also believes that the game needs Asians and plans to focus on this at its annual think-in, planned to take place in Oldham in November. Mark Sudbury, an FA spokesman, says: "They are stereotyped at school as not being strong enough for football. There is a cultural problem, that their parents do not see football as a career. And there is racism. We have to address these problems."

It's too late, however, for Mohammed Hafesji, Roma's star striker. He came to Britain from India when he was eight. His father became an imam at the local mosque and wanted Mohammed to study, pray or, failing that, play cricket. He blames his family for his failure as much as football itself. "My family did not support me," he says. "They didn't realise how much money I could have earned if I'd become a professional footballer. But that's changing now because the next generation of Asian parents know that football is a very good career for their children."

The league in which he plays neatly illustrates the problems facing the aspiring Shearers and Gascoignes of the Asian community. The Laurentian Life Asian Sunday League was formed in 1993 for two contradictory reasons. Firstly, Asians were tired of being bullied and attacked in white-dominated leagues, and, secondly, they wanted to show that they could organise and play as well as whites. They affiliated to the London Football Association and set about disproving the taunts - like the hurtful gag that any Asian who wins a corner tries to open a shop on it.

The LFA oversees 2,200 teams, including other ethnic leagues, for Turks, Cypriots, Jews and Italians (the expatriate South Americans, who play on Clapham Common, refuse to join the association because they do not like playing in cold weather). But the Asian league is different because it was born out of fear and a sense of inferiority. Many players, like Hafesji, believe now that it has served its purpose: "It got Asian players organised into proper teams. But now we should be playing against white and black teams. Scouts from the professional clubs could then tell how good we are."

This is not the view of Nadeem Nabi, a 26-year-old office manager for the Crown Prosecution Service in Stratford, east London, who hopes to be promoted shortly from general secretary to chairman of the league after the previous incumbent unexpectedly went to Pakistan. Once he is elected, as he is sure he will be, Nabi will have to grapple with a number of crises. The league's sponsors, Laurentian Life, a Gloucestershire-based firm offering financial services which donated pounds 12,500 last season, has been taken over by an American-owned company called Lincoln National, which seems doubtful about the commercial benefits of underwriting Asians to play football in London. The league has also been shaken by the defection during the close season of a team called Parkside, based in Cricklewood, north London, to a non-Asian league; they had been banned from contesting last season's cup final for fielding an ineligible player in an earlier round. Parkside, acclaimed for giving a chance to players who had had unfortunate experiences with the judiciary, said that they had been victimised for being too good and too hard.

Nabi, who is also a goalkeeper for Boca Juniors (the Asians identify with South American clubs) of the first division, insists that he is just the man to lead the league into the new millennium. He says he has already been approached by several Asian companies who would like to become sponsors. He is also not bothered by the loss of Parkside, who broke the rules and had to be punished.

These are familiar problems to anyone who has enjoyed Sunday football, an intense and often violent world, where the standard of the football, usually poor and often terrible, is irrelevant; though they may have prepared for the game by downing 10 pints the previous night, for many players the game is the highlight of their week, a chance to act out their fantasies and kick lumps out of the opposition (and sometimes the referee).

But the major problem facing Nabi is whether his league is helping to perpetuate racism and racial stereotyping. He admits that there are black - and a few white - players in the league, and concedes that the league grew out of fear and that it would raise standards and break down barriers if the Asian teams played other races. But, he adds, "We're at the stage which black players were at 15 years ago. Things are changing, and I'm sure we will see Asians in professional football. But not yet. It's too early"