It was a typical cold winter sunset in East London with a beautiful twilight over the Mile End Stadium, home of Sporting Bengal United FC. The home fans were bustling as their team was leading against a much higher rank team. After a while, in the dying minutes of the game, to the dismay of Sporting Bengal’s players and fans, some words were exchanged on the field which shouldn’t have been said, especially in 2019. A few opposition players started calling them terrorists.
It wasn’t loud, but people in the dugout could easily make out what was being said, for this wasn’t the first time something like it had happened. A shiver trembled down the body of players and their families in the stand. They wanted to quit the game, but a rather painful memory descended upon them. Last time they decided to walk off, they were punished for it. In the end, they chose to take it on the chin and finish the game.
Imrul Gazi, the manager of Sporting Bengal indignantly expressed that it is a common sight in the lower divisions of English Football. Appallingly it’s not just the rival players and fans, even the coaches and the referees have their share in a crime of this sort. According to him, one can often hear a coach saying, “smash that smelly ****”, or a referee telling, “you can’t win the game”, even before the match has started.
According to the Professional Footballers’ Association, there are just 12 players of South Asian lineage across the Premier League and the English Football League. However, the fact to note here is that around 7% (3.5million) of the British population consists of people from South Asian descent, making up the largest ethnic minority group. So the question arises, why is there a lack of representation from British Asians in the English Football? The answer to this lies in the lower division leagues and the grassroots.
In 2004 Zeshan Rehman made his debut for Fulham and became the first British Asian to play in the English Premier League. Since then there have only been three British players of South Asian descent to set foot in the EPL, namely Neil Taylor, Michael Chopra, and Hamza Choudhury.
Racism against the British Asians in the lower divisions is agonisingly very high. The players and the staff of Sporting Bengal have been upfront raising their voice against it. Sporting Bengal United FC was established in 1996 and to give the British Asian community a chance to play the sport.
While talking about the chronic shortage of British Asians in the Professional set-up, Foysal Ali of Sporting Bengal FC said, “Grassroots football is still very, very racist and is designed to work against ethnic minorities, particularly British Asians.”
Sadly, the media coverage of xenophobia at the grassroots has simply not been enough. It seems they are concerned only when it’s on TV because beyond that the number of bias incidents does not match with the number of reports. Perhaps due to this, the English FA never took a solid decision to deal with it. How does one expect to eradicate racism from elite football without first addressing it at the basic level of football?
Highlighting the inefficiency of FA and other anti-racism organisations after receiving no response to the cases of racism he had filed, Imtiaz Ali said, “Campaigns like kick it out have done a lot to tackle racism towards black players, and rightly so, and there’s still a lot to do, but they don’t really focus on racism towards south Asian players.”
In 2015 the FA launched a plan to tackle the issue. The initiative was to provide 50,000 new training spaces for young Asian male and female players while ensuring that another 2,000 go on to be trained at a higher level. Further, it was to create 100 British Asian role models, who would act as ambassadors. It has been 5 years now but it hasn’t seemed to make any difference. Racism in football is on a rise and not just at the grassroots but globally.
That’s where the media comes in! The onus lies on them to bring a change, by spreading awareness so that the people in power can take necessary decisions to uproot this evil.
One could argue that there are no football role models for British Asians to look up to within their community. But who is to blame for this? It doesn’t make sense to expect an individual to take up football in adverse conditions, which exists right now. Imagine a 10-year-old kid who sees players from his community being called terrorists….the kid would never get the strength to follow his dreams. If there is no participation, there are no role models. If more and more people from ethnic minorities don’t start playing then how can we ensure role models for future generations?
Written by Amogh Jain | Feature Image by Maja Hitij/Bongarts/Getty Images)
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