Friday 8 October 2021
Why are there so few professional footballers in the UK from a South Asian background? The former Arsenal midfielder Mesut Ozil is trying to find the answer.
Hi, I’m Andrew and this is the Playmaker.
One story every day to make sense of the world of football.
Today, the biggest statistical anomaly in football, and why Mesut Ozil is doing his bit to address it.
“He’s gone. No more Mesut Ozil. No more ‘Why isn’t Ozil starting?’ No more assists…”Robbie Lyle, AFTV
Earlier this year, when Mesut Ozil left Arsenal after eight years to go to the Turkish side Fenerbahce, you probably wouldn’t have thought his next involvement in English football would be a collaboration with League Two side Bradford.
But, on Wednesday this week, the German midfielder announced he was opening up a football development centre in Bradford, specifically to help give British South Asian players a better pathway into the game.
So why the focus on British South Asian footballers?
The answer lies in what Sanjay Bhandari, chairman of the football equality and inclusion organisation Kick It Out calls ‘arguably the biggest statistical anomaly’ in the game.
Just one in every 400 players across the English leagues are from a South Asian background, that’s countries made up in the subcontinent – Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives – despite making up around one in twelve of the UK population.
“We don’t talk about it enough. There are lots of other challenges in football and challenges around under-representation in football that we talk about a lot. Arguably this is the biggest statistical anomaly. If the playing side reflected the population at large there’d be somewhere between 300 and 400 professional players from a British South Asian background, and there’s something like 10. So that’s an enormous under-representation. We probably don’t talk about it enough and there aren’t enough initiatives to help solve the problem.”Sanjay Bhandari – Kick It Out
The figures back it up in quite a startling way – since the Premier League began in 1992, only five British South Asians have featured.
Problems, as they so often do in football, start from the top.
Amongst a litany of offensive statements made by the then FA Chairman Greg Clarke in his appearance in front of a DCMS committee last November, he said: “If you go to the IT Department of the FA, there’s a lot more south Asians than there are Afro-Caribbeans. They have different career interests.”
Clarke resigned from his position a few days later, but his words reinforced harmful stereotypes. And they must go some way towards explaining why there are so few South Asians in the professional game.
But, while one element of leadership in the game may be lacking, there are parts that seem willing to become more active.
“It’s like in any business, if you’re only selecting from a smaller section of the population, then what are you missing? What I’ve noticed with the England team in recent seasons is that dynamic in terms of the supporters has changed a lot… far more Asian people coming up to me talking about their pride in the team, talking about the diversity of the team could only be even more powerful if someone from the Asian community was in the team as well and we had that greater representation across the board.”Gareth Southgate, Sky Sports
That, of course, is England’s manager, Gareth Southgate.
There is clearly plenty of untapped, and overlooked, potential in the South Asian community that football clubs and scouting networks are failing to pick up.
And for Sanjay, the problem lies at the very start of the footballing journey.
“Whenever you have any enormous under-representation like that, or indeed, any significant under-representation in any industry. You go and look at the recruitment and the retention practices so what are we doing to get people into position and to keep them there and to help them to thrive. And to identify where the barriers are. And I think the most significant barriers for South Asians is getting into the academy system which is increasingly the pathway into the elite game. And there just aren’t enough making it through at the age of, increasingly, 8 or 9 [years old] as they go into the early years of the academy. There aren’t enough numbers going in there to make it through, out the other end of the system.”Sanjay Bhandari – Kick It Out
One centre in Bradford probably won’t solve all of the problems when it comes to under-representation in football amongst the British South Asian population.
But each step forward can only be a good thing to redress the imbalance, and, as Gareth Southgate says, widening a pool of talent is something that is in all of our interests.
Today’s episode was written by Andrew Butler, and produced by Imy Harper.