Football: Long hard road to recognition

ASIANS IN FOOTBALL: FA backs quest to counter racism and ignorance.
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The Independent Online
You could not count the number of Asians playing football professionally on the fingers of your hand. You would not need to, as there are precisely none and some would say they have been fortunate to have so many.

Preconceptions dog a young Indian, Pakistani or Bengali boy as he begins to kick a ball around. He will be physically too small, for one, not talented enough, for another, or it is too cold in Britain or his natural inclinations will tilt him towards cricket. Basically, Asians cannot play.

"Asians in Football," a conference hosted by the Football Association in Oldham yesterday, confronted these preconceptions. Why, the theme was, is it that the last ethnic group that, so it was once believed, could not kick it - the Afro-Caribbeans - now represents 20 per cent of England's 2,000 professional footballers, while a large minority provides nobody?

"It's become clear in the last two years that there is a huge increase in Asian youngsters playing the game," Mark Sudbury of the Football Association said. "Yet at the other end of the scale none have made it to professional clubs. There is a discrepancy somewhere, and this conference is a step toward addressing it."

The figures show that the problem is worth pursuing. The 1991 census revealed that around 1.5m Britons derive from the Indian subcontinent, 40 per cent of whom were under the age of 15. The sheer weight of numbers suggests that at least one man should have made it. But the immediate future looks no better, as the same section of the community provides less than half a per cent of teenagers attending clubs' centres of excellence.

Given the fall-out rate, the chances of an Asian player in the Premiership from this crop is negligible. Yet some clubs are facing a demographic time bomb unless they can attract players and spectators to their grounds.

One in two children leaving school in the Bradford area in the year 2000 will be of Asian origin; in Blackburn racial minorities will make up a third of the town's population within 20 years. The story is similar in Bradford, Leicester, the West Midlands and many other parts of the country.

Yesterday's conference revealed attitude problems at both ends of the spectrum. Asian parents have been more keen for their sons to pursue alternative careers, partly because they wish to spare them racial abuse. Meanwhile, clubs tended to take the view that no players now equals no players ever.

A report entitled "Asians Can't Play Football", which prompted yesterday's conference, revealed that 86 per cent of professional club officials, as opposed to eight per cent of Asian players, thought that Asian footballers were definitely or possibly less talented than players drawn from other groups. Also, 65 per cent of Asian players have regularly encountered racism playing football while 40 per cent of them reported that they were discouraged from playing by their families.

The joint author of the report, Jas Bains, said: "This conference proves the issue is on football's agenda. It's not as important as Bosman or money coming from satellite television, but it's there.

"In the year 2002, the World Cup goes to Asia for the first time when Japan and South Korea are the joint hosts. Wouldn't it be great to think that at least one member of the national squad will be of British Asian origin?"

As the conclusion to "Asians Can't Play Football" notes: "We can play. We just need to show how."