Asian football pioneer scales the old barriers

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The Independent Football

Mesba – or Mez as he is better known – is 32 now, too old to fulfil his dreams of becoming a professional footballer, too young to let them die. He was born in Bangladesh, but learnt his football on the streets of north London, honing his skills between the traffic. His career as an attacking midfielder peaked at Hillingdon Borough, the fault partly of his own maverick tendency, mostly of the game's suffocating stereotypes.

As an illustration, Mesba recounts a recent conversation with a local league administrator. "He said, 'You know, you Asians should stick to playing cricket, that's what you're good at. Football just isn't your game'.

"I had to tell him a few things," says Mesba. About the time he took a touring team back to his home town and 16,000 people came to watch. Or about the victory of his Bangladesh side in the Inner-city London World Cup last month, a two-day, 32-team tournament contested by communities with a far superior footballing pedigree than little Bangladesh. Mez united the rival Bengali communities of east and north London in a common cause and, last Sunday, the team paraded the trophy down the Mile End Road.

Yet the most pertinent fact is that 30 years after Mez's arrival in London and over 20 years since Viv Anderson became England's first black full international, Asians remain the lost tribe of English football. Michael Chopra is captain of England Under-17s and highly regarded by Newcastle, Harpal Singh was top scorer for the Under-19s Academy side at Leeds before being transferred to Bury this week; both are exceptions which prove the rule.

"People look at the physical side of the game, but we feel that's not a problem," Mesba says. "It's a matter of organisation, decent facilities and a good structure, getting the kids young and integrating them, not just white and non-white, but within the Asian communities themselves. You wouldn't believe the little frictions there are between different communities. Lisson Grove Bengali Boys v Queen's Park Bengali Boys, rivalries between two different streets. It's not just football, sport as a whole can cut down those sorts of barriers."

Frustrated by the lack of coherent organisation within Asian groups, Mez has formed his own club, the London Tigers. They are financed by local grants and voluntary donations, run by a board of trustees and staffed by a bewildering league of nations, 20 at the last count, led by a core of his Bangladeshi world champions. His most audacious challenge is to take the Tigers from their current place in the Middlesex County League straight into the Premier Division of the Rymans League and, because he is nothing if not positive, on towards the Conference and Nationwide League football.

The broader aim of the club is to provide a structured outlet for the athletic gifts of a new generation of British-born Asians, those who have largely felt bewildered by the complexities of the system or simply excluded from it. Forget football for a moment, says Mez, where are the emerging Asian sprinters or middle-distance runners?

"I've spent years sitting in meetings with people and they all mean well. But what happens? Absolutely nothing. The facilities in the Borough of Westminster are still the same as when I was playing on the streets and in the car parks of the local medical school. I spoke to a scout from Luton the other day and asked him why he never came to watch any of our matches. He told me we had no structure in the borough, so he couldn't tap in to what was going on. That hit me. I thought, 'Right, we'll just have to do it ourselves'.

"In the past, most Asian kids haven't taken up football until they're 16 or 17. Why don't they play at an earlier age? Because there's no one to organise them, no one to drive them to matches, no one to explain to their parents about the culture of English football. We have a problem getting sides on Sunday mornings because the kids have their Arabic classes or their Bengali classes and the parents don't understand that the kids want to play football. It needs someone they know from the community to say, 'I understand, but how can we get around this, because your son has real talent'.

"The same goes for the academies. If a young player with real talent comes along and one of the pro clubs want him, the parents probably won't let him go because they don't really know where he's going or why. I get fed up with people asking me when will the first Asian footballer play for England. Not for a long time, but that's not the point. The way to change attitudes is not to have one individual playing for England but to get a whole team playing to a really good level. That's what we're trying to do, but we need some help."

The Tigers already turn out five over-16 teams, and youth teams at every level from the age of 10 through to the seniors. Training sessions are scattered borough-wide, and there are plans to set up an Asian academy when the coaching programme has been properly structured and a permanent home ground established. Wednesday eve-ning found Mez and two of the club coaches taking a session within a decent off-drive of Lord's cricket ground on a pitch bordered by the Lisson Grove Estate and the Regent's Canal. Many of the kids have been attracted purely by the respect Mez's name commands in the community.

"He's a brilliant link between the different generations of Asians, the young and the old, because he can balance their demands," says John Sangha, who works with West Ham's Football in the Asian Community programme. "A white person just wouldn't have the same influence."

In this week of all weeks, the concept of sport as peacemaker holds a particular attraction. The key to Mez's vision lies not just in his restless energy nor in a background which allows him to move smoothly between cultures. "I just want young Asian kids not to waste their talent in the way I wasted mine," he says. "If I'd have been born now, who knows, I might have played for England one day." He laughs at the thought, but it is the dream which drives his bright ambition.