World Cup Winner, former Arsenal legend (depending on who you ask) and human rights activist Mesut Özil has returned to the UK to take up a new role, that of sporting mentor to those being marginalised by the football scouting system. Setting up the Football for Peace | Mesut Özil centre in my hometown of Bradford, Özil aims to change the narrative around British Asians in sport, elevating them from fan to professional player.
A Statistical Anomaly
Despite making up around 8% of the UK population, less than 0.25% of players across the leagues in England are from a South Asian background, with Kick It Out chair Sanjay Bhandari telling Sky Sports News that this is "the biggest statistical anomaly in football". Further to this, at amateur youth level, south asian representation across both the boy’s and girl’s game sits at around 6% nationally (according to Statista). Why does this take such a dive when moving into the professional game? Is it simply because British Asian amateur footballers do not want to take the next step up into professional football or is there something deeper here? Are British Asian players not getting the support they need to get to that next tier?
Representation can become a vicious cycle. A lack of representation disenfranchises young South Asian players, in turn, the next generation of players have no representation and so on and so forth. EA Sports created an incredible campaign during Ramadan with Hamza Chaudhury, the most decorated of only 6 British Asian players at top flight football, where he hosted late-night FIFA21 tournaments as young British Muslims would be up late to break their fast. The campaign was incredibly well-received, from my own experience, family and friends who had no interest in football had their intrigue piqued and, crucially, felt a level of acceptance by the football community previously not experienced.
Culture and Perspective
One man who witnessed the positive effects of this campaign was Sudhayse Hussain, former Head Coach of Bradford-based community team BD3 4ALL. “Kids normally come to training to play around and mess about with their mates but when they saw that advert, they were more serious, more focused. Football became something that they can actually do something with, as opposed to just a fun game, Hamza Chaudhary is proof of that. Being noticed as a community can have a profound effect on someone”.
Sudhayse has been a strong proponent of the Football for Peace initiative, believing it will have a two-pronged effect in increasing South Asian representation at the elite level of the sport. The first prong focuses on the cultural perspective of football as a career in South Asian communities. Much of the South Asian diaspora in the UK are first or second generation, meaning there “is a sense of duty to their immigrant parents or grandparents to go down standard career routes”. Football is seen as being too risky a career option, so those who have “been flagged as the next Messi and Ronaldo” leave the game at the point they could go professional and, instead, pursue accounting, law, medicine - driven to a safer career choice due to a sense of obligation.
Sudhayse puts the magnitude of the potential loss of talent in perspective when he tells me “My dentist is one of the lads I used to coach. When he was 16, he ended up having trials at Man United, wiped the floor with the rest of the rookies and Fergie [Sir Alex Ferguson] was ready to sign him there and then. His parents said no as they felt it wasn’t a stable career choice and didn’t want to take him out of school. Now he’s cleaning teeth when, in another life, he’s a world-beating talent… it’s not something you want to think about too much”.
A Luck - When Preparation Meets Opportunity
The second prong is opportunity. Places like Bradford, Luton, Derby, parts of Birmingham, etc - “these inner-city areas of the UK with a high density of South Asian residents aren’t places scouts are visiting. They’re all but ignored!” With the Football for Peace | Mesut Özil Centre, the FA aims to increase visibility of South Asian players at the very early stages of their footballing journeys. John Barnes, England legend, was discovered in a park in Middlesex and went on to become one of the English footballing greats, the game and scouting trends has progressed since then making such a phenomenon impossible.
Going to trials costs money, getting in a youth club costs money, liaising with potential coaches and managers costs money - South Asian players from these inner-city areas of the UK are being priced out of the game. Ozil and his foundation are looking to reverse this with access to key footballing contacts, subsidies and elite coaching opportunities in deprived areas.
Lay of the Land
Ultimately, British football is experiencing a sea change when it comes to representation and tolerance in the sport. With the abuse of black players post-World Cup reaching fever pitch, the FA can no longer stand by and chalk fan-based prejudice up to “a few bad eggs”. The FA needs to reconsider how accessible culturally and literally it is, from the elite level all the way down to grassroots. With the FA-backing the Football for Peace initiative, they will hopefully produce a core, profound change for minority representation in football as opposed to the transient, shallow change we’ve experienced for the past 25 years.
As a Bradfordian, as a South Asian and, ultimately, as a fan of the beautiful game, I am for the first time, optimistic about the potential for South Asian players breaking through into professional football and having a level of longevity at the elite levels. Mesut Özil is knocking over the first domino in increasing South Asian representation in professional football. I, for one, can’t wait for the final domino to fall when what is seen as an opportunity for South Asian players is simply normality.
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