Former Newcastle & Sunderland striker calls for more action on British Asian footballers

Video report by Andrew Misra

Former Newcastle and Sunderland footballer Michael Chopra says that ‘not enough is being done’ to get more British Asian players into the professional game.

Around 7.5% of the UK population is thought to be British Asian, making it the most common ethnic minority in the UK. Despite this, there are currently only 15 players from an Asian background out of the 4000 professionals in the country - just 0.38%.

If the proportion of Asian professionals was reflective of the population, there would be around 300 - twenty times as many as there currently are.

Chopra, from Newcastle, is one of only a handful to have played in the Premier League.

Michael Chopra taking a shot during Newcastle United v Blackburn Rovers in January 2006 Credit: PA

He played as a striker for two of the North East’s biggest clubs. After coming through the ranks at Newcastle United in 2002, he later went on to play for Sunderland in the top flight five years later.

The 37-year-old scored more than 100 goals in English football, with the majority of his success coming in the second tier of English football, most notably at Cardiff City.

Yet, nearly twenty years after making his debut for his boyhood club, Chopra remains one of only five British Asian footballers to have ever played in the Premier League. Looking back, he feels fortunate to have done so.

He said: “I’ve been lucky that I never got treated differently. I know people treat Asian players differently and that sort of thing.

“When I was growing up you get the odd comment - he’s too weak, he’s too small. That was about 20-25 years ago. People tend to say that about Asian players and Asian kids.”

Michael Chopra celebrates scoring a hat trick for Cardiff City against Derby County in 2009 Credit: PA

Chopra finished his career playing for Kerala Blasters in India in 2016, but expressed his frustration at the lack of Asian players who have made an appearance in the top flight of English football.

From the West End to St James’ Park?

West End Tigers are a local Saturday league club in Newcastle. The team includes players from Bangladeshi, Indian and Pakistani backgrounds.

West End Tigers

Manager Zaf Naqvi has played and coached in the city for thirty years. He believes that there are young Asian players in the region with the ability to make it as a professional, who are going unnoticed.

He said: “I think it’s the case of not being discovered, you know. I’ve managed kids from Under 7s up to Under 14s, Under 15s and I’ve come across some fantastic players who could’ve made it.

Zaf Naqvi manages West End Tigers

“Unfortunately their counterparts or their teammates would be looked at instead of them. It’s 2021 now and unfortunately things haven’t changed.”

Aziz Rahman is a defender in Zaf’s team who grew up in the city. He believes that role models are important to inspire young Asian players.

He said: “You want someone to look up to, when you’re watching the football match. You want someone similar to you, so you can copy someone. But we didn’t have that.

Aziz Rahman plays for West End Tigers

“Obviously there was other players that you can follow but you can’t really relate to them, if you know what I mean. So it would have been better if there was someone you could relate to so you can push yourself to get to that level.” 

There are currently only two players in the Premier League with South Asian heritage: Aston Villa defender Neil Taylor and Leicester City midfielder Hamza Choudhury.

Aston Villa defender Neil Taylor and Leicester City midfielder Hamza Choudhury Credit: PA

Choudhury was heavily linked with a move to Newcastle United in the January transfer window, but the switch did not materialise.

Zaf adds, however, that he has seen some barriers restricting Asian involvement in football being lifted.

‘Single largest statistical anomaly’

Sanjay Bhandari is Chair of Kick it Out, football’s leading inclusion organisation. He is calling for commitment across the game to stimulate an increase in Asian representation in football.

He said: “Everyone should care about this issue because in English football it’s the single largest statistical anomaly. South Asians are the largest ethnic minority in the UK and they are the most underrepresented.

“Unless we have a whole game approach, nothing will change.”

It is a call that is echoed by Chopra and football fans. A survey of 2000 people by the Football Supporters’ Association and Beyond Entertainment found that:

What is being done?

In 2015, the Football Association (FA), football’s governing body, launched a plan called ‘Bringing Opportunities to Communities’.

The aim is to create playing opportunities for boys and girls in parts of the country with large South Asian populations. 

The second phase of this plan, launched in 2019, mentions places like Luton, Leicester and Burnley. Nowhere in the North East is listed yet but the FA says there is going to be another update to the strategy soon, so perhaps in time this may lead to more clubs like West End Tigers emerging in the region.

Meanwhile, the Professional Footballers' Association (PFA), the trade union for professional footballers in England and Wales, launched its Asian Inclusion Mentoring Scheme last month. It allows young Asian players coming through the ranks to get tips and advice from established players and former players, like Michael Chopra.

The man behind the scheme, Riz Rehman, is a former professional player for Bradford. His brother Zesh is one of the five British Asian players to have played in the Premier League. Riz is PFA Player Inclusion Executive and is optimistic about the positive impact that the scheme is having.

He said: “I’m already seeing the change, I’m already seeing parents calling me saying that they’re seeing their children’s confidence grow.

He added: “If there’s 15 professional players right now, if in the next 5, 10 years I can see that number to 30 then that’s a start. We’re just making a start in this whole area.”

The 15 players from an Asian background registered at professional clubs in the 2020/21 season is a record high - but remains very low in the context of the population.

Sadly, several of those players have experienced racist abuse.

Swansea City midfielder Yan Dhanda Credit: PA

Swansea City midfielder Yan Dhanda was racially abused on Instagram recently and he said what was most upsetting was that there are so few Asian players - meaning he couldn’t speak to anybody in the game who knew what he was going through.

Hamza Choudhury has also experienced racist abuse on social media, back in 2019.

There are other issues too around decision makers. There are hardly any Asian coaches, scouts and referees. That needs addressing too, which the FA says it’s looking at. 

The underrepresentation of British Asians in football was flagged as an issue as far back as 1996. 25 years on, it seems there is still a lot more to be done.

ITV Tyne Tees journalist Andrew Misra explains what is being done to get more British Asians into professional football.

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