The phenomenal success of the Premier League is a source of great pride in England. Billions of pounds generated through television rights, advertising and commercial ventures have propelled top-flight stars into the multimillionaire bracket. But despite the plaudits for a game globally loved, one anomaly remains.
In over 20 Premiership seasons, the absence of Asian players has been one that the football authorities cannot ignore. Embarking on Blackburn's landmark trip to India for a friendly with FC Pune on Friday, manager Steve Kean hopes to redress the Asian imbalance. Rovers are one point off the bottom of the table, and Kean has come under increasing pressure from Rovers fans to be replaced. However, he remains committed to the India trip, one which he has made monthly himself since Indian owners Venkys took over at Ewood Park last November.
"It is a genuine idea for us to look for talented players," Kean said. "Myself and Ryan Nelsen have previously been to India, we had a football clinic and were very impressed with the talent we saw. I'm convinced there is Asian talent out there and we want to bring it through," said Kean.
It was during his time as Chris Coleman's assistant at Fulham that the breakthrough of the only full Asian – Michael Chopra is of mixed race – to have played in the Premier League arrived. Zesh Rehman played 21 games for the Cottagers in 2004-05, and was hailed as the role model for other Asian players.
However, after several loan spells, Rehman is currently playing alongside Robbie Fowler in Thailand for Muangthong United.
Not known for missing out on talented players, Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp is unable to explain why there are currently no Asian players in the Premier League. "I'm just waiting for one to break through and I'm sure plenty more will follow. If they're good enough, they'll come through. There's got to be some Asian players starting to break through.
"What the Asian community needs is a role model, someone breaking through, and that will give them the hope that they can do it, because there is no reason why they shouldn't do it. There's great athletes, great cricketers, great sportsmen in the Asian community, so why shouldn't they do it?" said Redknapp, who revealed that his club had eyed a pre-season tour to India. "We were looking to go to India this year, we were talking about it, it was a possibility. I don't know if something will happen [in the future], but it has been talked about."
Redknapp was reluctant to see the departure of the Premier League's highest-profile Asian to Liverpool after three years at White Hart Lane – Zafar Iqbal is now sitting behind Kenny Dalglish as the Liverpool club doctor. Iqbal says reaching the top of your profession is all about the hard work you are willing to put in and the rewards will follow. Iqbal remains cautious on the emergence of Asian players, saying that community discipline and a change of mentality is needed before any sustained numbers of Asian players come through.
"There is not a good Asian player out there, if there was, trust me, Harry or Kenny would have snapped them up. If an Asian player is good enough he will make it," he claims. Iqbal is well placed to address the Asian diet, and his prognosis is not good. "The diet isn't there. Heart disease and type II diabetes is prevalent, and unless there is a change of mentality at grass-roots level, we won't succeed."
To make his point, Iqbal tells of the talk he gave at a local community centre on the danger of Asian sweets, and laddoo – rich orange ball-shaped sweets – in particular. "If you eat one laddoo, you'll need to walk for three miles to get it out of your system, I said. A 60-year-old gentleman stood up and asked, 'How long will I have to walk if I ate 10 laddoo?' and that mentality is what we are up against," he says.
At Chelsea's Cobham training ground last May, the third "Search for an Asian star" event took place. Hundreds of Asian youngsters turned up to follow their dreams of becoming footballers, with the prize to train at Chelsea's academy. Hopefuls ranging from eight to 12 years old – and their vociferous parents – assembled for a day which saw them put through a series of tests to measure speed, ball control, technical ability and accuracy, all rigorously conducted by more than 30 Chelsea coaches.
There was a first for the "Search for an Asian star" event as the Chelsea coaches could not pick between two players in the under-10s category. Twin brothers Umair and Umar Khan from Feltham shared the first prize.
Aston Villa too are determined to bring their local Asian community on board, and they have a secret weapon in marketing executive Ravinder Masih. Prior to our meeting before Villa's 2-0 win over Wigan last Saturday, the only Asian presence in the media room was the chicken curry on the menu. Masih explained how the club are trying to bring Asian fans to matches through a club presence at cultural and religious events, as well as better communication of the football theme . "We have 800 members of the local community here today, and we hope that will continue," said the Birmingham-born Canadian who approached Villa to do some consultancy work. With owner Randy Lerner's blessing, he has now been at Villa Park for four years. "Asian people feel comfortable talking to me and their interest in football has had a positive effect here," he says.
The FA and the Premier League would love nothing better than having Asian players in the national team, and at grass-roots level they are trying to encourage their inclusiveness. What has been a recurrent theme here, however, has been the saying that "If they are good enough, they'll come through." There is no need for any kind of affirmative action to select Asian players and clubs would never accept this anyway. Chelsea's commitment to unearthing Asian talent is admirable and the rest of football would do well to replicate their project.
* "Dr Zafar would like to make it clear that his comments regarding mentality, lack of effort and poor diet were made in relation to his experiences acting as a medical professional working with the British South Asian community as a whole and not specifically in relation to footballers. He does a great deal of voluntary work in the community in relation to physical inactivity, obesity, heart disease and diabetes and was referring to the fact that he has experienced some level of apathy in addressing health and fitness issues and this is something he is striving to address through his voluntary work with the Zesh Rehman Foundation"
Players of Asian descent in England's top divisions
Zesh Rehman (Fulham, Brighton, Norwich, QPR, Blackpool, Bradford City)
Michael Chopra (Newcastle United, Watford, Nottingham Forest, Barnsley, Cardiff City, Sunderland, Ipswich Town)
Adnan Ahmed (Huddersfield Town, Tranmere Rovers)
Harpal Singh (Leeds United, Bury, Bristol City, Bradford, Stockport County)
Rikki Bains (Coventry City, Accrington Stanley) Neta Sansara (Walsall)Reuse content