Football: They think they've no chance before even kicking a ball

OLIVIA BLAIR on why there are so few asian footballers

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The Independent Online

Given that Arsenal is among the most cosmopolitan of football clubs, as well as home to arguably the highest profile black player of the modern era, it was appropriate that Highbury was the venue chosen to launch the latest initiative in the Let's Kick Racism Out Of Football campaign, now simply known as Kick It Out.

And, being an Arsenal fan, the minister for culture, media and sport was more than happy with the location. "Every time I see Tony Banks wearing his Chelsea scarf I remind him how well Arsenal are doing," Chris Smith said.

But he ought to have known better than to trust the Highbury traffic, which caused him to be 20 minutes late. Not that his lateness mattered to anyone present, except perhaps Michael Duberry. The Chelsea defender was the only Premiership player who turned up, but he looked distinctly uncomfortable at having to make room for the Secretary of State next to him.

But while the MP's lateness in no way detracted from the campaign's message that racism and prejudice have no place in football, it did mean he missed the performance of an extract from Kick It Out's new play about a young footballer who secures a professional contract with a Premier League club, and his subsequent struggle to make the grade.

Nothing unusual about that, you might think, except that the title of the play Ooh Aah Showab Khan gives this one away. The player in question is Asian, and Asian footballers are about as rare as a Stuart Ripley goal.

In fact, according to Sir Herman Ouseley, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, Asians are "practically invisible in the professional game", both on and off the pitch. Only one springs to mind, and he plays up in Greenock, home to Scottish First Division club Greenock Morton.

Jazz Juttla, who was born in Glasgow, was a member of Rangers' Youth Cup-winning side of 1995/95, yet was recently released after failing to make the first-team breakthrough. He was apparently a "a good enough player", albeit one who was was never going to stand a chance given Rangers' recent policy of signing big(ish) name players as opposed to promoting from within.

Bradford did have an Asian player called Chris Dolby on their books but he "didn't quite make the grade", according to manager Chris Kamara. But Bradford are doing more than most to encourage the Asian community - there are 180,000 Asians in the city - to become more involved.

They have an Asian Supporters' Club, but, according to Kamara, what they really need is an Asian player in the team. "We've employed an Asian scout and have Asian players on trial regularly, but they seem to think they've no chance even before they've kicked a ball."

Hardly surprising, then, that Brendan Batson, deputy chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, claims he's got more chance of picking six Lottery winners than predicting when the first top-flight Asian footballer will emerge.

However, the PFA did help fund a recent report entitled Asians Can't Play Football from which they concluded that "while there's undoubtedly a huge pool of untapped talent among Asian footballers, it's down to the clubs to convey the message that everyone gets a fair crack of the whip."

That may not be the universal story, but it's certainly the tale the fictional Showab Khan would have us believe. In the play, he's remarkably upbeat about his lot, claiming he was subject to the same selection procedures as his white contemporaries.

That view is endorsed by the former Arsenal scout Terry Murphy, now at Wimbledon, who says: "It doesn't matter whether they're black, white, yellow or green, we'll take them if they're good enough."

But it's still hard to believe that West Ham, a club situated in a borough where the ethnic population is forecast to total 50 per cent of the population by the year 2000, have just one Asian on their books. According to Murphy, Koya Abul should make the grade, if potential at 15 is ever a yardstick. But Murphy himself can't remember running the rule over any Asian talent recently; the last time he did a fight broke out between the two rival factions in an Asian Cup final.

It's certainly not aggression that Asian players are noted for; dedication more like, perhaps stemming from the need to prove themselves. On the downside you hear the familiar racial undertones: too thin, ankles too weak, can't play on Sundays, eat different food and worship a different God. In short, Asian faces - and their feet - don't fit.

Clifford Oliver, the play's author, is all too aware of the obstacles. "If I was an Asian player, I'd think seriously about embarking on a professional footballing career. In the 1960s we were highlighting the problems facing black players, yet three decades on we're discussing initiatives to combat those same problems. What kind of message does that send out?"

Not a very positive one, but there is light at the end of the tunnel in the shape of a 15-year-old striker on Derby's books. He's quick, he's sharp, and he's got potential. More crucially, he's Asian. Amrit Sidhu - remember the name.