South Asian footballers: England's untapped reservoir of talent
Mentoring, a changing of mindsets and ditching "lazy stereotypes" will ensure more English-born professional footballers of South Asian descent make it to the top of the game.
That's the view of Riz Rehman, player inclusion executive for the Professional Footballers' Association, who is tasked with tapping into under-used reserves of talent.
While black players are well-represented in the English leagues, there are far fewer South Asians -- just 15 in the professional ranks and 10 young "scholars", according to Rehman.
Over the past 20 years just 24 players of South Asian descent have made a league debut while Ricky Hill remains the only footballer from that background to have played for England, winning three caps in the 1980s.
Rehman, whose own career was brought to a premature end by injury, says under-representation is a "big problem for our communities", but should not be the defining narrative.
His brother, Zesh, remains the only player to have played in the Premier League with full South Asian heritage (their parents are Pakistan-born) when he turned out for Fulham from 2004.
Zesh was capped at youth level for England but went on to captain Pakistan.
"Me, my peers and the young players are evidence that players of Asian descent can thrive and that should be the focus," Riz Rehman told AFP.
Rehman points to other success stories such as Neil Taylor, who played for Wales at Euro 2016, Leicester's Hamza Choudhury and Danny Batth, who helped Wolves win promotion to the Premier League.
He says they can act as mentors for academy players, and youngsters such as Arjan Raikhy, who made his senior debut for Aston Villa earlier this season, can do the same for those who are even younger.
"Zesh, Michael Chopra, Easah Suliman, Hamza Choudhury, Yan Dhanda have represented England at various levels," he said. "No one talks about these achievements.
"For the last 30 years we've had the same lazy stereotypes labelled against Asians in football and we want to move away from these misconceptions.
"We are starting to do that by showcasing the successes and the contribution these players have made to the game."
- 'Challenge mindsets' -
Zesh, currently coaching Hong Kong side Southern, says mentoring is a useful tool and one that was missing when he was making his way in the sport.
The 37-year-old, though, says families too must play a role to support aspiring young footballers, steering them towards mainstream leagues.
"Life in football is competitive and challenging and I understand why Asian-only leagues are set up, although I disagree with them," he said.
"Those teams do not have links to professional teams but others at grassroot level do. It is very difficult to break through, wherever you are from, at the best of times. If you are good enough you will come through.
"The Asian community should look at themselves and be really honest before pointing the finger elsewhere."
Daniel Kilvington, senior lecturer at Leeds Beckett University, says the widespread belief that English-born South Asian youngsters are primarily interested in cricket or hockey is not true.
"You go out in any local school or park in a British South Asian area -- as I know from my own experience in Bradford -- footballs would be flying around rather than cricket balls," he said.
He says high-profile role models "are an ignition key for younger people", showing them they can succeed and also helping to change opinions that appear to be set in stone.
"It can challenge gatekeepers' mindsets they may internalise around British South Asian players," he said.
"Scouts, managers believe they are not strong enough or quick enough or physical enough or lack interest, which I have heard a lot in the 10 years I conducted my research.
"Seeing them at the top of the game, the visibility will challenge mindsets and make a positive contribution to their decisions."
Riz Rehman is confident that things can change but admits there is a long way to go.
"We just need more players at the grassroots and then more of a steady flow progressing into the academy system," he said.
"If in five years we can have 25 to 30 professional players and 25 to 30 scholars at one time, that will be progress.
"I want to put a positive light on it regarding representation and be realistic at the same time."
© 2021 AFP