We were disappointed to read remarks made by Amir Khan this week. The boxing great chose the moment of his retirement to take a swipe at young British Asians in sport – and footballers in particular. He said they give up too easy and fall back on “excuses”. He said their diet is “appalling” and made up mainly of curries. Perhaps these were throwaway comments, but they perpetuate a myth and they need to be addressed.
We work together as part of the Asian Inclusion Mentoring Scheme (Aims) at the Professional Footballers’ Association. One of us is a lawyer, the other a former player and coach, but we both love football and want to see more players of South Asian heritage in the game. We also see every week the commitment young players and their parents are putting into making that a reality. At a recent Aims event at St George’s Park we had 100 young elite players and 200 parents stay a night away from home in order to raise awareness of what it might take to make the grade. These are players who spend all their free time training and parents who will drive the length and breadth of the country to support that. Nobody here is making excuses.
As for the diet, it’s the same stuff we were hearing 30 years ago and a claim that has no empirical or scientific basis. A South Asian diet has not stopped Pakistani players from dominating the stamina-intensive sport of squash or Indian stars from reaching the top of international cricket. Kids in the UK, meanwhile, are eating a diet comparable to those of their black and white peers. Everyone loves pizza. The issue of a more balanced diet is something for everyone to think about and at Aims we share nutritional information with parents from all cultures. Information and understanding are key.
The statistics with regards to South Asian representation in professional football speak for themselves: 7% of the population has 0.45% of players within the game. Something has been going wrong for a long time and the main problem has been one of structural discrimination. The architecture of football is set up in such a way that to get on, you have to be part of a network. If you look at the grassroots level you have feeder clubs: teams with ties to academies who are passing on talent. If you don’t know who they are and you’re not involved in those networks then you won’t be able to get into the system.
Up until recently South Asian parents have not been familiar with the architecture and haven’t known how the networks operate. We think that is changing. The community has become part of the landscape and initiatives that have been undertaken help people to start plugging in. The numbers of South Asians within the system have increased. But there is a second hurdle once you are in the system too; the unconscious bias we all hold that shapes our perceptions of others.
We can see how stereotypes linger about people from the remarks made by the chairman of Middlesex County Cricket Club in the wake of the Azeem Rafiq scandal. Mike O’Farrell told a parliamentary committee that “football and rugby [are] much more attractive to the Afro-Caribbean community” while Asian players won’t “commit the same time” to succeed in cricket because they “prefer to go into other educational fields”. We heard similar from the former Football Association chair Greg Clarke in remarks that led to his resignation in 2020.
This is why Amir Khan’s remarks are so dispiriting: because they perpetuate stereotypes. They are images that are out of date because the picture on the ground has changed. Football clubs want players who are talented and bright. We have players within the Aims programme who are academy scholars and sitting not only their BTecs but A-levels too.
Because of Brexit, football clubs are having to move away from recruiting young talent in Europe. They are concentrating more on the talent on their doorstep and the South Asian community is ready to engage. Families are now educated about the networks and ready to access them. From Hamza Choudhury and Dilan Markanday to Zidane Iqbal an absence of role models is changing. There’s that subconscious bias but it, too, will be whittled away in time. We are not alone in being invested in the game and coming with solutions. Things will change and we have no doubt that South Asian players will feature in our nation’s contribution to the most popular sport on the planet.