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Sunday, February 10, 2008

QPR and Pakistan's Zesh Rehman Cited in Article "Why Are There No Asian Football Stars"

The Sunday Times/Jonathan Northcroft - February 10, 2008
Why are there no Asian football stars?

Attitudes must change if a huge untapped resource is ever to achieve its potential

Netan Sansara
Netan Sansara. Netan. Sansara. “Players look at me and hear the name and ask, ‘Are you Portuguese or Puerto Rican or something?’ Then I tell them. ‘Indian?’ they say, ‘shouldn’t you be playing barefooted?’” There can even be ignorance close to home. “Some of my family on my mum’s side say, ‘Are you working?’ and I say, ‘Yes, I’m a footballer’ and they just look at me. ‘Isn’t that just for weekends?’
“People come to my house and see my England shirt and say, ‘Why have you bought a shirt and stuck it on your wall?’ It’s a joke, almost. I find I’m always having to educate.”
Sansara is not shy about his ambition. “I want to be the one that takes football to the next level,” he says. “I know it’s going to be hard, but I believe that I’m good enough and coaches think I’ve got a chance. I don’t see it as a burden. In fact, it inspires me.”
With three A-levels and an England Under-18 cap among his accomplishments over the last 12 months, Sansara speaks about his situation with sharpness, intelligence and fearlessness.
He plays with those same qualities which is why, a tall left-back, adept in possession, the 18-year-old is already on the fringes of Walsall’s first team and may just have a chance of achieving his goals: to become the first British Asian footballer playing regularly in the Premier League and the first in the full England team.
Sansara is only the second “full Asian” (he distinguishes himself from Sunderland’s Michael Chopra, who has an English mother and Indian father) to play at youth level for England and hopes to go a few steps further than the first.
Zesh Rehman played up to under-20 level but, unable to go further, now plays for Pakistan and dropped out of the Premier League, eventually moving on to Queens Park Rangers having failed to win a regular place at Fulham.
The low number of Asian participants at elite level in almost every discipline is one of the scandals of English sport, and football’s almost total lack of professional Asian players the biggest scandal within the scandal. In 1996, the Wolves fan and academic Jas Bains authored a damning dossier on how the game was ignoring the Asian community, sarcastically entitled Asians Can’t Play Football. So little had changed when he came to update his research in 2006, his next report was called Another Wasted Decade. Less than 1% of the hundreds of kids at Premier League academies are British Asians and Sansara is one of just five with professional contracts at English league clubs.
“I think, eventually, there will be a lot of us playing but not during my career,” says Sansara. “What Asians need are role models and I would love to be one – though I’m level-headed and I don’t want to be built up to be something I’ll never be. I’m the first completely Asian lad to play for England Under18s, but I can’t dwell on that. Now I want to kick on.”
Sansara’s progress was recognised by a nomination for this year’s British Asian Sports Awards, to be held in London on Saturday. He did not make the final shortlist of Monty Panesar, Amir Khan and the badminton champion, Aamir Ghaffar, but two eight-year-old footballers, Hanif Hussain and Joseph Osman, both already attracting some interest from professional clubs, are shortlisted for the Young Sports Personality category.
Perhaps the next decade will not be wasted, but if Asian footballers are to prosper attitudes must change. Not everyone can be as strong-minded as Sansara. At 15, he was already in the first team of nonleague side Darlas-ton Town and was offered a contract by Birmingham but chose Walsall because of their better record in developing young players.
“At first I didn’t enjoy it because there was a lot of racism. I used to go home and tell my mum, ‘I don’t want to go back.’ It was horrible. I used to get called ‘Paki’ – even from my own team.
“A lot of people don’t realise that it goes on. Even now, I don’t think people at Walsall know what I went through. If you get called ‘Paki’ every day, of course it’s going to get to you. I just used to smile and say ‘I’m not Pakistani, I’m an Indian’ but it was hard to laugh it off. They said it was just banter and eventually I tried to accept that, because if you complain too much people can say, ‘He’s using it as an excuse.’ But ‘Paki?’ Banter? No chance.”
Racism is not the only barrier Asian players face. Sansara owes much, he says, to Mick Halsall, Walsall’s head of youth, and especially to his parents, Mohinder and Usha.
He is aware that many young Asians in the game don’t benefit from the same support and is already laying plans to address the problem by opening a football school. “Because there are no role models, a lot of Asians, especially of the older generation, see football as just a social thing and not something kids can make into a professional career.
“I’ve got one mate, a really good player, whose parents are more traditional than mine and, when we were growing up, never came to watch him in a single match. Mine went to every game. We’d give this other lad a lift, and took him to training and presentation nights. It definitely has a knock-on effect and eventually my friend gave up,” he says.
“I suppose my family aren’t conventional Asians. We live in quite a classy, ‘white’ area and my dad used to run a pub. I can’t live without curry. What Asian can’t? But my mum’s great with my diet and so’s my grandmother. You wouldn’t think a 60-year-old Asian woman would know about lasagne and pasta but she’s learnt to cook it just for me.” Abdul Basit, an award-win-ning coach and community cohesion officer for Bolton Wanderers, plays for Shajalal Unity in Oldham’s Sunday League. Shajalal’s players are drawn predominantly from the local Bangladeshi population and they have suffered some hideous prejudice – such as a game against a side from Failsworth last season where one spectator ran up and down the touchline waving a St George flag, shouting “England” and some black members of the side attracted monkey chants.
Basit believes that more education within the Asian community would be of huge benefit and make a big difference. “The Asian interest in football is absolutely huge but it’s about showing young players a pathway into the professional game,” he said.
“There’s a lack of knowledge about how you become footballer. Some kids think they might get scouted playing in the street, but if you’re not playing for a team in an organised league you won’t get spotted, end of. We need to get Asian kids of seven or eight into the academies and to create more Asian coaches to put into the communities, because it can be difficult for outsiders.”
Basit, who also runs an Asian women’s team called Bend it Like Beckham, has worked for the Football Association but he is not overly impressed by the efforts Soho Square are making to reach out to young Asians. “I went to Malawi with Viv Anderson and he told me all the stories about having bananas thrown at him in the early days, and we’re experiencing what black players faced in the 1970s.
“Look at black players now – but what we need are a couple of ‘breakthrough’ footballers, like Viv Anderson was.”
Sansara, just possibly, might be one. It’s a heavy responsibility, but one he wears lightly.
Breaking the mould
The Sunderland striker, son of an English mother and Indian father, became the first player of Asian background to represent England when he debuted for the Under16s against Scotland in 1999
Birmingham-born defender Rehman made 21 Premier League appearances for Fulham before moving to QPR. After playing for England at youth level he now plays for Pakistan

A former West Ham trainee, who has had spells with Sheffield Wednesday and Bristol Rovers, Uddin now captains Dagenham & Redbridge. In an area where the British National Party has had some of its greatest electoral success in recent years, Uddin is a crowd favourite and was fans’ player of the year in 2005

The Pakistan international had a spell at Manchester United’s academy before making his professional debut for Huddersfield - Sunday Times

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