By Nick Harris
7 April 2010
If footballers with South Asian heritage were proportionately represented in the English game, there would be around 125 pros with sub-Continental backgrounds. In fact there are seven, and even that lowly figure is an all-time high.
So as Chelsea today launched their second ‘Search for an Asian Soccer Star’ programme, designed to encourage more British players from South Asian backgrounds into the professional game, the club was praised by Kick It Out for its valuable contribution.
The scheme, which involves selecting youngsters at trials to spend time at Chelsea’s academy, is part of the club’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) work, as opposed to being a device to save Roman Abramovich cash in the transfer market.
It won’t produce legions of players immediately good enough to populate Chelsea’s youth ranks. Indeed the two main “winners” from the inaugural ‘Asian Stars’ last year are now attached to clubs in lower divisions, respectively Jordan Sidhu at Southend, and A’ameer Murphy-Kstantin at Orient.
But the programme has wider value, with Piara Powar, the director of Kick It Out, saying: “We fully endorse the Search for an Asian Star initiative. The outcomes from the 2009 initiative demonstrate how a project like this can break down stereotypes, and give genuine opportunities in the professional game for talented young Asian players.”
Chelsea, working in conjunction with the Asian Media Group and Kick it Out will arrange a tournament on the May Bank Holiday Weekend (29-31 May) at Chelsea’s Cobham academy for players from Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi backgrounds, aged eight to 13.
Participants will be judged on a series of matches and tests specifically designed and used by the Chelsea academy to examine speed, skill and ability. One player from each age group will be selected for a week’s training with the Chelsea academy squads during the summer, with any player meeting the required standard being offered the chance to be signed by the the club.
“Last year was a massive success with two of the boys going from Sunday League football to play for professional clubs,” said Simon Taylor, Chelsea’s head of CSR. “We want this year’s tournament to be bigger and better so we have doubled the amount of age groups and trials on offer. The scheme is not just about finding the next Anelka, Drogba or Lampard, it is about breaking down barriers, showing Asian players that opportunities at all levels of the game do exist and encouraging them to maximise their potential.”
Chelsea will also be inviting managers, coaches and scouts from clubs at all levels of the game to identify talented youngsters and information will also be on hand for Asian players to find clubs in their area.
Applications are now open but places are limited for each day.
Players from South Asian backgrounds are massively under-represented within English football, and always have been. Ricky Heppolette, who played at Preston, Orient and other clubs from the mid-1960s was unique at that time in having Indian roots. And Baichung Bhutia, who was born and raised in India but played briefly at Bury from 1999, remains to this day the only footballer from India who has ever migrated from his home country to England to play professional football.
Otherwise, players from South Asia or with South Asian heritage have been few and far between.
There are around 3m British South Asians in Britain today, around 1.4m with Indian heritage, 1m from Pakistani families, 500,000 with Bengali backgrounds plus a few hundred thousand with roots in Sri Lanka and elsewhere in the region. Among a total British population of about 61m people, Britons with South Asian backgrounds therefore equate to roughly 1 in 20 people.
In English professional football, which employs some 2,500 senior players at any given time, you might expect 125 from South Asian backgrounds. In fact there are seven. According to the Kick It Out organisation, there are “hundreds of thousands” of British Asians playing and watching football each weekend, yet British Asian players in professional football can be counted in single figures.
The seven current British Asians in English professional football are:
Zesh Rehman, 26, a defender, who was the first British Asian to start a Premier League match, when he was with Fulham. He now plays for Bradford and is a Pakistan international.
Michael Chopra, the 26-year-old Cardiff striker, was the first player of Indian parentage to play and score in the Premier League; he achieved both those feats with Newcastle.
Anwar Uddin, a 28-year-old Dagenham and Redbridge defender, born in the East End and a former West Ham youth player, is the only footballer of Bengali parentage in the English professional game.
Netan Sansara, 20, a defender with Walsall, has been capped by England under-18s. Rikki Bains, 22, is a defender with Darlington, currently playing on loan at non-League Gateshead. Aman Verma, is also 22 and a defender, with Leicester, currently on loan at Histon, while Krishnan Patel is an 18-year-old midfielder with Bury. Sansara, Bains, Verma and Patel are all from Indian families.
And that’s it.
Harpal Singh, once a source of great hope at Leeds United under George Graham and more recently a non-League player, is no longer in the game. Another recent departee is Adnan Ahmed, 25, a Burnley-born Pakistan international midfielder. He was at Manchester United’s academy as a boy, played in England with Huddersfield, Tranmere, Mansfield and Port Vale, and moved to Ferencvaros in Hungary’s top division last year.