At the time of last Census, British Asians (Britons who trace their origins to South Asia: India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, The Maldives & Sri Lanka) made up nearly 8% of the UK’s population. Of all British professional footballers in the UK, just 0.3% are Asian. Why and how is such a large proportion of the population so vastly underrepresented in such a mainstream sport?
This has been a subject of debate for the last twenty or so years. The problem has been highlighted by many, but very little has been done to attempt to override it.
One of the core reasons put forward for this underrepresentation is that of the existence of damaging clichés and myths surrounding Asian players: “Asian players prefer cricket”, “Asian players are physically weaker”, “Asian players’ parents want their kids to focus on academia”. We are currently in a generation in which similar harmful and damaging clichés surrounding black British players are beginning to be dismantled (though not if Graeme Souness has anything to do with it), so why do these stereotypes still exist among Asian players?
Dr Daniel Kilvington is an academic at Leeds Beckett University who has extensively studied the topic. He told a conference in 2018 that a white male coach at a professional club had once told him “…they (Asian players) don’t like physical contact, I think that’s their problem. Why are they good at cricket? At Squash?” He went on to explain in an article with Jason Murugesu that “…the scouting network is overlooking British Asian players.”
Kilvington notes that the few British Asians to have made it professionally typically “had non-stereotypical Asian names, or dual nationality… so that people didn’t really know they were Asian and so those stereotypes were less likely to be embedded in the scout’s minds”.
Kashif Siddiqi is one of the 12 British Asians to have played professionally in the UK. He cites the huge lack of opportunities for British Asians, explaining that “If you’re making it as a professional footballer over here as a Pakistani or an Indian, the general feeling is that you must be amazing. It’s not a level playing field. Why can’t we just be South Asian footballers?”
Another issue he mentions which faces young British Asian footballers is the fundamental lack of role models in the sport. This itself is a Catch 22 situation. Young British Asians do not have a Viv Anderson, a John Barnes or a Raheem Sterling to look up to.
Neil Taylor is the highest-profile British Asian playing professional football in the UK. He has 40 caps for Wales as well as 5 for Team GB in the 2012 Olympics, but one man alone cannot carry the torch for nearly a tenth of the British population.
How does this startling disparity begin to dissipate? Systematic prejudice is clear to see, though the regular discussion of topics such as these will do well to shed light on them and bring them further into the collective consciousness of the football industry.
It is clear more needs to be done at youth level to ignore these potentially harmful stereotypes, whether conscious or unconscious. The emergence of promising youth players like Dilan Markanday at Tottenham, Yan Dhanda at Swansea and Hamza Choudhury at Leicester is a positive sign.
In light of the recent resurgence of racially aggravated incidents which are plaguing global football, the issue of representation becomes all the more important. Will we see a trailblazer for British Asians emerge in the coming years?