Young Asian Males: social exclusion and social injustice in British professional football?
The disproportionately low number of Asian Heritage professional
soccer players in Britain is a matter that has been increasingly noted
within the game. Indeed, comparisons are now being made between
players of Afro-Caribbean Heritage „breaking in‟ thirty five years ago
and the current lack of Asian Heritage players. Through use of
questionnaires, this research focuses on the perceptions of
Youth/Community Development officers at UK professional football
clubs and Asian Heritage males who are involved in playing the game.
Comparisons are drawn in particular with the Bains and Patel report
(1996) which remains probably the most significant discussion of the
issue from the last decade. Findings suggest that there are some
encouraging signs of progress in some clubs and that the two groups
share views on certain barriers to Asian Heritage players entering
professional soccer. However, they remain very polarised in
important respects, not least concerning the prevalence and impact of
At the time of writing, in the wake of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, the matter of institutional racism is to the fore. As defined in the Inquiry’s report, this is ‘The collective
failure...to provide an appropriate and professional service...through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping‟ (Macpherson Report, 1999, p.321). Also,
social inclusion is high on the agenda of ‘New Labour’ (e.g. Social Exclusion Unit, 1998;
Social Exclusion Unit, 1999). A raft of initiatives aimed at addressing social disadvantage attest to this. They include New Deal for Communities (community regeneration) and actions in the field of education such as Education Action Zones, Excellence in Cities and Surestart. Certainly, both poverty and ethnicity have been major factors which have adversely affected educational attainment and entry into the job market. In terms of ethnicity, „…the evidence
shows a clear pattern of continuous under achievement for certain ethnic groups which starts in early education, continues through further and higher education, and persists in the labour market‟ (Pathak, 2000, p.1). In particular, only about half of Bangladeshi and Pakistani adults are economically active and these groups have poverty rates four times those of whites (Berthoud, 1998). Now, as regards the entry of young men into soccer as an occupation, poverty has not generally acted as a barrier, but ethnicity certainly has. A commonly held view within the early sport and race literature, is that sport is either neutral, transcending conflicts between races (Brohm, 1978) or, indeed, leads to a position where ‘racial barriers
are undermined and eventually broken down‟ (Thompson, 1964, p.13). However, other
writers have suggested that sport has been glorified as an ideal model of race relations (e.g. McPherson, 1989) and that it sometimes serves to maintain and even exacerbate ethnic boundaries (e.g., Allison, 1982).
Research into Asian Heritage participation in sport generally, though, and certainly in football, is not extensive. This has been commented on by researchers such as Fleming (1993), though since 1993 several studies have emerged. Rather, the great majority of the research on race and sport, including football, has been concerned with Afro-Caribbean Heritage males. Despite the fact that there was a significant migration of this group into the UK in the 1950s, during the 1960s the number of black professional footballers was minimal. Although by the 1978-79 season Viv Anderson had become the first black player to be selected for the full England team, as Hill (1989) points out it was not until the 1980s that one could identify significant numbers of black footballers. Currently, though, around 20-25 per cent of UK professional players are of Afro-Caribbean heritage. This prompted Hodgson (1996) to pose the question: ‘Why...is it that the last ethnic group that, so it was once believed, could not kick it – the „Afro-Caribbeans‟ – now represent 20 per cent of England‟s 2,000
professional players, while a large minority provides nobody?‟ (Hodgson, 1996, p.32).
The progress of Afro-Caribbean Heritage players was made despite the existence of some powerful barriers to entry into the hitherto white domain of football. Chief amongst these, it has been alleged, have been institutional racism from the ‘football community’, including clubs, leagues and affiliated associations and organizations, racism on the part of fans and a lack of support from the football governing bodies. The Football Association was accused of adopting a ‘colour blind’ policy which only succeeded in escalating the problem (Hill, 1989; Back et al., 1996). Throughout the 1980s, terrace racism was at its height, with organized groups such as the National Front and Combat 18 recruiting football fans. One of the most graphic illustrations of racism from this period, directed at Afro-Caribbean players, was a photograph of John Barnes back heeling a banana off the pitch, whilst one of the most appalling sounds was that of ‘monkey chants.’ More recently, other incidents have been
chronicled by Moran (2000) in his account of the part racism had to play in his decision to quit playing the game, commenting: ‘…that I felt I had to stop playing the game that I had
loved...because of this racism, is a terrible indictment of the football industry‟ (Moran, 2000,
p. 190). If the ‘football community’ was implementing policies for this sort of behaviour to be overcome then they had very little effect. It was claimed that: ‘Although overt racism
inside football clubs was beginning to decline, on the terraces, it still remained a problem. Also, black supporters continued to be a rarity at stadia across the country…These two
negative aspects were, during the seventies and much of the eighties, consistently overlooked by football clubs, the game‟s authority and also by the British government. (Sir Norman
Chester Football Research Centre, 1995)
Do these same barriers apply to Asian Heritage footballers today?
Football racism and violence have decreased considerably during the 1990s, partly perhaps because of the introduction of appropriate legislation such as the Football Offences Act (1991) which made racist chanting unlawful. However, racist chanting has not completely disappeared and much of the current abuse is linked to Asians: ‘Most Asians are still
intimidated. We go there to watch these white and black players and they‟d start singing “I‟d rather be a nigger than a Paki”. It doesn‟t exactly make you feel welcome‟ (Brown, 1995,
p.14). Many Asian Heritage fans, then, understandably remain disillusioned by such a state of affairs and are reluctant to attend professional games. Pinto et al. (1997) found that only one
per cent of Sheffield United fans were of a minority ethnic background. Holland (1992) ascertained that 35 per cent of the Asian Heritage residents of Burnden in Bolton, where the original Bolton Wanderers ground was sited and where many Asian families live, stated that
they had encountered racial harassment on the streets by fans and that 90 per cent of them actually stayed indoors on match days because of it.
In more recent years there is little doubt that the professional football community has begun to acknowledge the potential hurt and damage that can be caused by racism. This is evidenced by the widespread take-up by clubs of the ‘Let’s Kick Racism Out of Football’
and ‘Kick it Out’ campaigns. However, some argue that such initiatives are superficial and
fail to address the core problem: ‘Some people think that racism has gone away…They‟ve put
up their banners, they‟ve put it in the programme, they think that they have done their bit, but it hasn‟t gone away‟ (Ousley, 1995, p.26). One of the key findings from the, ‘Asians Can’t
Play Football’ report reinforces this: ‘Institutionalised racism plays a large part in reducing
prospects for footballing recruits from Asian communities. Traditional methods of player recruitment “naturally” discriminate against Asian players, but claims of clubs to be “colour blind” in this respect actually serve to protect them from accusations of bias‟ (Bains and
Patel, 1996, p.5). Back et al. (1996) add: ‘It is difficult for the issue of racism to be addressed
institutionally. It can often be painful and difficult for principally white football administrators and professionals to open up the issues of imbalance with regard to the representation of minorities within the professional structure of football clubs and its related institutions‟ (Back et al. 1996, p.59).
Although racism can be seen, then, as a possible barrier for Asian Heritage players, as it had been for Afro-Caribbeans, it is often presumed that just as the latter successfully broke into the game, so too will Asian Heritage footballers. However, the literature suggests that these players have additional challenges to overcome. First, researchers have suggested that a lack of role models has been a key factor in explaining the low profile of Asian Heritage
sportsmen and women. Fleming (1993) found that the South Asian youngsters he studied seldom identified with South Asian sports stars and that although there was some awareness of cricketers such as Imran Khan, there was no wish to emulate them. He argued that this could be linked to the fact that the majority of Asians in this country are considered to be of a lower socio-economic group and as such are ‘socially disadvantaged’. Therefore, how could they identify with ‘aristocratic’ sportsmen? Carrington and Williams (1988) argued that the
absence of role models serves to confirm the view apparently held by many Asian Heritage parents, that sport and physical education are just ‘playing around’. Thus, parents are less likely to encourage their sons to play football. A lack of role models might also negatively influence the youngsters themselves in to believing that, if there are no Asian Heritage role models in sports such as football, then no Asian Heritage people are good enough to play. As Jayant, aged 16, comments: ‘There‟s some things that we just aren‟t any good at: football,
boxing, rugby – the harsh games. I suppose it‟s ‟cos we just aren‟t made the right way‟ (in
Fleming, 1993, p.32). Interestingly, though, with the exception of football, there are Asian
Heritage role models in these ‘harsh games’; for example, Prince Naseem in boxing, Ikram Butt in rugby and several UK international weightlifters.
Second, whilst Afro-Caribbeans have been considered to have the physique, talent and natural ability to succeed in football (Hill, 1989), several writers have suggested that the clubs’ perceptions of Asian Heritage players in this respect are generally negative. Thus, Bains and Patel (1996) claimed that 86 per cent of the club officials they questioned thought that Asian footballers were either ‘definitely’ or ‘possibly less’ talented than players drawn from other groups. Similarly, Adia argued that, ‘professional football clubs perceive Asian
footballers as physically and culturally unsuited to playing the game professionally as well as being less talented than players from other ethnic groups (Adia, 1996, p.14). Others have
suggested that such stereotypes often stem from the school context. Williams (1989), for example, stated that the Asian pupil is typically seen as physically frail, lacking in stamina and likely to underachieve in physical education, a perception which might be an inhibiting factor in young Asians participating in football - a crucial point given that the majority of football talent is observed and encouraged in boys aged between eleven and sixteen.
Third, following on from the above, it is possible that Asian youngsters have received little encouragement at school. For many, their sporting ambitions are formulated at school through their physical education lessons and extra-curricular sporting activities. However, it has been claimed that these are often negative experiences. Fleming (1993) goes so far as to suggest that ‘What they consider to be physical violence directed against them is often legitimised through sport‟ (Fleming, 1993, p.35), whilst Bains and Patel argued that P.E.
teachers ‘are not always supportive in sport of Asian children as is the situation with white or black children, and that this can hinder the progress and ambitions of those Asian boys who aspire to the highest possible level of football‟ (Bains and Patel, 1996, p.23). Where there is
support it is claimed that it is usually in relation to engagement in sports other than football.
Fourth, whilst it seems that Afro-Caribbean youngsters receive family support in attempting to become professional footballers - usually linked to the perceptions of those families that sport is an option to take in relation to social mobility and the advancement of social status (Coakley, 1998) - several studies have suggested that Asian families may effectively discourage their children from participating in sport (Carrington et al, 1987; Fleming, 1993;
McGuire, 1993; Jarvie, 1995). Several reasons have been advanced for this: the prioritisation of career pathways in professions such as medicine and law (Bhandari, 1991); the low esteem afforded sport given the perception that it requires negligible intellectual capacity (Fleming,
1993); the fear of racial attacks if children participate in sport (Leeds Community Relations Council, 1987); perceptions that Physical Education in schools displays disrespect for religious beliefs and that sport is associated with bribery, drugs, alcohol, violence and hooliganism (McGuire, 1993). However, there is also evidence to suggest that greater family support regarding entry into football might slowly be changing: ‘You have to remember that
most first generation Asians come from poor backgrounds and their priority was to make a living. They steered their children towards professions like law or medicine because they believed that was where the money was. I think people are re-evaluating their opinions‟
(Lunat, in Hodgson, 1996, p.32). Some emerging Asian Heritage footballers have, in fact, put their progress in the game down to good parental support (Knapp, 1997).
Fifth, although there are significant cultural and religious differences within the Asian communities in the UK, the impact of culture and religion on the progress of Asian Heritage youngsters in football has to be considered. Researchers such as Fleming (1993) have suggested that many Asians will only consider engaging in sport after religious and cultural commitments have been fulfilled. Indeed, others argue that it is religious and cultural considerations that influence the perceptions that some, though not all, Asian groups have of sport and of their participation in it (Parry and Parry, 1991). However, Asian Heritage males do participate in organised football (Giulianotti and Williams, 1994; Bains and Patel, 1996; OMBC, 1996). Many are playing in all-Asian teams and leagues, an estimated 300 teams across Britain, and a conservative figure is of tens of thousands playing the game at some level:
No matter where you go in the United Kingdom where there is an
Asian community you are very likely to find an Asian football team. In
areas where there is a high settlement of Asian people you will find
many Asian football teams. The rate of participation by young Asians
in football is extremely high. Asians are running regular tournaments
for themselves with teams from across the country participating in
them. (OMBC, 1996)
The fact is, it seems, that for Asian Heritage players, all-Asian teams and leagues feel ‘more
comfortable’. However, it is alleged by some that these players are ignored by the
professional clubs, who see them as marginal to mainstream football suggesting that ‘…that
such initiatives are divisive and that they serve to marginalise Asian footballers from mainstream footballing activity‟ (Bains and Patel, 1996, p.35.) It was also discovered that
many Asian players who did move on to ‘mainstream’ leagues, including those at semi-
professional level, tended to return to the ‘comfort zone’ of their own teams and leagues. In relation to the matter of culture, it is also interesting to note that of the few Asian Heritage players who have progressed through to professional football, most are either of mixed heritage, for example Anglo-Indian, or have been brought up by white adoptive parents.
Finally, it has been argued that there has been a lack of support for Asian players from the clubs and the football governing bodies. Bains and Patel (1996) found that 83 per cent of the Asian Heritage players they studied, as opposed to 22 per cent of football club officials, claimed that the absence of Asians from professional football is due to a lack of opportunity, not least because the clubs do not watch Asian players enough. Brown (1995) suggests that ‘It‟s not that Asians have accidentally slipped the net, more that the net‟s got huge holes in
strategic places‟ (Brown, 1995, p.16). Moreover, although the Football Association pledged that it would ‘try to ensure that people from ethnic minority backgrounds have an equal
chance to take part in the running of the game as coaches, managers, match officials and administrators‟ (quoted in CRE, 1993, p.4), British born minority ethnic group members involved in the game are almost exclusively of Afro-Caribbean heritage.
Research design and methodology
The main aim of this study was to identify the major barriers faced by Asian Heritage males regarding entry into professional football. This was done by exploring the different perspectives of the professional football clubs and of Asian Heritage males themselves. A questionnaire was distributed to all 92 English clubs, to be completed by either the youth development officer or the community development officer, as the people with most first hand knowledge and experience of recruiting young players. Questionnaires were also given to a sample of young Asian Heritage males in the Greater Manchester region, the great majority of whom played amateur league football. 36 clubs (39 per cent) responded to the questionnaire in its entirety, another 12 (13 per cent) responding in part. 40 questionnaires (66 per cent response rate) were completed by the Asian Heritage males.
The questionnaire was designed following guidelines by both Blaxter et al. (1996) and
Thomas and Nelson (1996). It was designed to ensure that it would provide the necessary information, that it would be acceptable for use by the respondents and that it would be relatively easy to analyse and interpret. The use of Likert scales was considered to be the most productive method of capturing much of the information, requiring respondents to indicate strength of agreement or disagreement with given statements (strongly agree, agree, unsure, disagree, strongly disagree.) These closed questions were used to ascertain factual knowledge while some questions presented the respondents with categories of which they had