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Football Association confirms improving South Asian elite representation now 'a long-term aim'

skysports.com

Football Association confirms improving South Asian elite representation now 'a long-term aim'

The Football Association has told Sky Sports News that addressing the "stark" under-representation of South Asians in the professional game is now "a long-term aim".

Yasir Mirza, who was appointed FA director of equality, diversity and inclusion last year, said the FA's key mantra "A Game for All" is about ensuring English football is inclusive for everybody, including Britain's South Asian community.

"I think the challenge is quite stark around South Asian representation in the elite game," added Mirza, who was speaking at a Football and Faith event at Wembley Stadium ahead of Eid.

"Keeping our foot on the pedal I think is a really, really important job for us. It's a long-term goal. It's a long-term aim for us."

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South Asians are the largest single ethnic minority group in the country, making up around 10 per cent of the population of England and Wales, but they remain severely under-represented at the highest levels of the game.

Entering the final stretch of the season, it is all-but certain the Premier League will not feature a British South Asian for the second successive campaign - the first time that has happened for almost 15 years.

In fact, just one footballer from the community plays regularly in the men's second tier, Leicester City's Hamza Choudhury - with only one regular in the Women's Championship, Blackburn Rovers' Millie Chandarana.

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Both players were named in last year's first-of-its-kind South Asians in Football Team of the Season.

The comments from Mirza, who is part of the Football Association's senior management team, represent a step-change in direction for English football's governing body.

The FA has traditionally taken a broader Pan-Asian approach to ethnic representation, leading to discontent among sections of Britain's South Asians Football community calling for specific interventions to solve a problem described by Kick It Out chair Sanjay Bhandari MBE as "the single largest statistical anomaly in English football".

The future of the game at grassroots through to the elite game, was discussed on the sidelines of the recent Sporting Equals Awards, with general consensus among key stakeholders over the need for a football-wide South Asians in Football strategy.

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Officials from Sporting Khalsa, Southall FC and the Khalsa Football Federation all signalled their agreement, alongside the first Muslim member of the FA Council, Yunus Lunat, and former FA National Game Board member Abu Nasir.

English football's national governing body has come under intense pressure in recent years to try and show leadership on the issue after former FA chair Greg Clarke reinforced racialised stereotypes by suggesting South Asians had different interests compared to Black people, pointing to levels of representation in the FA's IT department.

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Clarke apologised and stepped down from his roles with the FA, UEFA and FIFA following his comments in front of a DCMS Select Committee hearing in November 2020, and has since been succeeded as FA chair by Debbie Hewitt.

But his remarks opened old wounds among Britain's South Asian football community whose mistrust of authorities stems from being locked out of the game for 50 years since many families moved to the United Kingdom in the seventies.

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Former Liverpool youngster Yan Dhanda, who fronted the Football Association's Bringing Opportunities to Communities drive in 2019, condemned the comments, telling Sky Sports News they indicated football has gone backwards rather than forwards on South Asians in the Game.

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Sky Sports News has produced South Asians in Football content and supported the community every week since that interview with Dhanda, creating the longest-running major initiative in the space both in media and football.

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Saad Wadia, who worked in the Football Association's IT department for three years before going on to work in sports management, told Sky Sports News the comments were particularly disappointing as IT was his route into football.

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The following month saw former Newcastle, Sunderland and Cardiff City striker Michael Chopra call on football's conventional stakeholders "to do a lot more" for South Asians in Football.

In February 2021, the Professional Footballers' Association introduced its Asian Inclusion Mentoring Scheme, before PFA player inclusion executive Riz Rehman told Sky Sports News there was too much talk on the subject and not enough action.

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In 2022, Sky Sports News partnered with sports race equality charity Sporting Equals, delivering the world's first timeline and showcase of South Asian heritage female players in the modern English game.

The exhibition has toured the country and gone on display at the home grounds of Premier League teams Chelsea and Wolves, and Wembley Stadium for two Football and Faith events at the home of English football.

Later in 2022, the Premier League launched its first-ever South Asian Action Plan, linked to its No Room for Racism action plan.

The Premier League said 1,344 boys and girls engaged in qualifiers run by six Premier League clubs last year, culminating in 24 teams and 200 players taking part in last year's Emerging Talent Festival, though not all were from South Asian backgrounds.

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The figures were released to coincide with the latest No Room for Racism activation, which aims to bring Premier League clubs together to demonstrate their commitment to improving diversity and fighting discrimination.

Crystal Palace were among the clubs supporting the campaign last weekend, with No Room for Racism messaging displayed around Selhurst Park during their game with Manchester City, and players taking the knee ahead of kick-off to show their unity against all forms of discrimination.

But at the turn of the year, Kick It Out chair Bhandari hit out at "lazy racist stereotyping" after a Crystal Palace scout's comments about South Asian families on LinkedIn.

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Michael Verguizas' comments were also criticised by former cricketer Azeem Rafiq, researcher and academic Dr Stefan Lawrence, and FA Council member Yashmin Harun.

Verguizas, who is lead pre-academy scout at Crystal Palace, wrote: "Asian families put all their efforts into education plus their [sic] more aligned to the game of cricket... Don't think it's pushed in their families or in their culture...Boys following this sport are far and few in this industry".

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The comment was criticised on social media after initially being called out by online fans' platform Desi Ballers, who questioned how long Verguizas has held these views, adding "this ain't even unconscious bias".

Bhandari wrote on social media: "Wow. This is some lazy racist stereotyping that does not align with grassroots participation data from someone with authority over the player pathway… is he a relic from the 1970s?"

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Dr Lawrence said: "Yet further evidence of the nonsense that exists in football discourse about [South] Asian players. People in the game should be doing much better by now. No excuses."

Kick It Out chair Bhandari added: "We know these things are said and the attitude pervades. They rarely leave an actionable evidence trail. The unusual bit is having the confidence/ignorance to commit that thought to writing in a public platform."

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Campaigner and former Yorkshire cricketer Rafiq also criticised the comments on X, formerly known as Twitter.

He said: "Welcome to 2024 - these people decide the future of our kids."

Verguizas, who has previously worked in youth talent identification roles at Tottenham, Arsenal, Brentford and Charlton, was responding to former Cheltenham Town manager Chris Robinson on LinkedIn.

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Sky Sports News has contacted Crystal Palace for comment.

FA Council Member Harun wrote on social media: "This is exactly the point I make in every discussion - the gatekeepers within football are some of our biggest barriers, and they need to be outed for the views they hold.

"Unfortunately he's not the first and he won't be the only one with these views…"

For more stories, features and videos, visit our ground-breaking South Asians in Football page on skysports.com and stay tuned to Sky Sports News and our Sky Sports digital platforms.

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