A reluctant symbol keeps low profile

Asian standard-bearer prefers to let his skills do the talking for club and country
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The Independent Football

One way or another, Michael Chopra is breaking down the barriers. The young striker who plays for Newcastle United can be seen pictured on the home page of Sunderland's club website, safc.com, highlighting the visit of the England Under-21 team to the Stadium of Light on Tuesday night. In the small world of petty North-east rivalry, it is a welcome sight indeed (and due credit to Sunderland for showing such magnanimity). In the wider world of English football, though, Chopra's graduation to the national Under-21 squad happens to be of far greater significance.

Last Monday night the 19-year-old was on the bench for the friendly against Serbia and Montenegro in Hull. If he plays against Slovakia he will be the first player of Asian background to represent the England Under-21 team. It would be a big step forward for the multicultural well-being of English football after the quantum leap taken in the backward direction when the England senior side played Turkey at the Stadium of Light last month.

Chopra is a Geordie boy, born and bred in Newcastle. His father, Minty, is an Indian with a Geordie accent. His mother, Sharon, is English. He has described himself as "half Asian", but is reluctant to be thrust into the spotlight as some kind of symbolic standard-bearer. The agency who look after his affairs, SFX, have advised him to decline interview requests.

It is perhaps understandable. The elevated profile that was given to Harpal Singh at Leeds - George Graham described him as "the next Michael Owen" - has hardly helped his development. "I can understand it," Piara Power, director of the anti-racist campaign organisation Kick It Out, said. "I don't necessarily think Michael has to give an interview to underline the fact that he's Asian, because people will take from that what they will, and they may take from it things he doesn't want taken.

"Maybe he doesn't want that pressure of being a standard-bearer, but, nevertheless, the cultural politics of football and race in this country are quite rich. In that context alone people will attribute a status to him, whether he likes it or not. Michael's known as somebody who has dual heritage, and people look at that as a signifier of diversity.

"We know about the glorious history of black players in this country and, certainly over the last 10 years, we take black players playing for England for granted. There are more issues around the development of Asian footballers and the way in which some of the old stereotypes are still applied - the way in which clubs, scouts, coaches still don't understand the set-up of football in the Asian community. We still hear comments like, 'Asians prefer to play hockey or cricket than football' - some very crude physiological stereotypes, which are rubbish really.

"So Michael's selection for the Under-21 squad is a very welcome, very positive devel-opment. It underlines in a more subtle way some of the messages that need to be put across about football and national identity - to break down some of these ongoing problems that we've had, as were witnessed at Sunderland. And I think it's particularly significant that he's from the North-east, because the North-east is not the sort of place where you associate Asian communities living."

It is significant, too, that Chopra's racial background has never been an issue in the North-east - which is probably another reason for his reluctance to be suddenly drawn to comment on it. In the region's press he has always been referred to as simply the local lad making good, the goalscoring prodigy from Alan Shearer's old school, Gosforth High. And he has featured on the sports pages of the papers sold in his father's Tyneside newsagency. Come 1 July, he will have been on Newcastle United's books for precisely a decade.

Chopra was eight when he was spotted playing for Montague Boys' Club by John Carver, now Bobby Robson's first-team coach at St James' Park. He has played, and plundered goals, for England at every level from Under-15 to Under-20. Last November he scored twice for the Under-20 team in a 5-3 defeat against Italy at the Stadium of Light.

His progress through the ranks at Newcastle has been held up by the form of Shearer and Craig Bellamy, and by the improvement shown by Shola Ameobi and Lomana LuaLua. He did, though, make four substitute appearances in the first team last season - against Everton in the Worthington Cup, Barcelona (in the Nou Camp) and Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions' League and West Brom in the Premiership - and as a loanee at Watford he scored four goals against Burnley and played against Southampton in the FA Cup semi-final.

"Michael has a huge future at St James' Park," Bobby Robson said. "He knows there are a few players ahead of him right now, but that won't always be the case. Michael just has to soldier on and apply himself and his chance will come. He's going to be a fantastic little striker.

"He's an extremely astute player with a very, very good football brain. He loves the ball hit into space, just like Craig Bellamy, and he holds it up well. He's a strong bugger, too. I would liken him more to Mark Hughes than Alan Shearer. He's also a great finisher. We have high hopes that he will become a big star at Newcastle." And possibly at Sunderland for England on Tuesday night, too.