Mesut Ozil says he will give British South Asian players a platform to shine after linking up with partners including the Football Association and Bradford City for the launch of the Football for Peace Mesut Ozil Centre.
Speaking exclusively to Sky Sports News last year, former Liverpool striker Emile Heskey spoke about growing up in Leicester and playing football with South Asian kids as a youngster, adding the community has an unquestionable passion for the game.
Yet despite making up around eight per cent of the UK population, less than 0.25 per cent of players across the leagues in England are from a South Asian background, with Kick It Out chair Sanjay Bhandari telling Sky Sports News that this is “the biggest statistical anomaly in football”.
“I have always been surprised why the South Asian Community are only allowed to be fans of the game,” World Cup winner Ozil said.
“Why are we not seeing more players or managers breaking into professional football? I want to promote them, give them an opportunity to be successful both on and off the pitch.
“I myself am from an ethnically diverse background and understand the challenges. I hope the Football for Peace Mesut Ozil Centre will become the platform they need.”
The Mesut Ozil development centre aims to provide pathways into football and education and will be hosted at the University of Bradford, with elite sessions taking place at Bradford City’s training ground.
Bradford City CEO, Ryan Sparks, said: “We are delighted to form part of the Mesut Ozil Football for Peace Development Centre, that will facilitate the growth and inclusion of the South Asian community in football. Inclusion and diversity is fundamental to the success of our club and Bradford as a whole – and we pride ourselves on providing a welcoming and warming environment for all.”
FA Board member, Rupinder Bains, said: “The FA is proud to support this important initiative which aligns to our Asian inclusion strategy, Bringing Opportunities to Communities. All people regardless of ethnicity or background should be able to play and enjoy the game.
“Through this initiative, we hope to see more young people from historically under-represented ethnic backgrounds breaking into academy structures, creating a stronger future pipeline of talent for the professional game. It is a promising step forward.”
University of Bradford vice-chancellor, Professor Shirley Congdon, said: “Through this partnership, we hope to use football to engage with young people in our communities, to show how sport can contribute to resolving pressing social and environmental issues, and to help them become future leaders who will make a difference to societies around the world.”
The Bradford hub is sponsored by Innaree and will be run as a pilot, with more Football for Peace centres co-branded with different players expected to be rolled out in different parts of the country heading into the new year.
Ozil is a long-term supporter of Football for Peace, a global organisation backed by the United Nations and co-founded internationally by British South Asian and former Pakistan international footballer Kash Siddiqi.
Ozil teamed up with Siddiqi during lockdown last year with the pair arranging for the delivery of 500,000 meals across the UK that were set to go to waste management from Wembley Stadium.
Siddiqi said: “Football has given me so much, and working with Mesut we want to create a platform that will provide a framework inside the football pyramid between professional clubs and also our community.
“Whilst it is important to see greater representation in professional sport, it is also vital to recognise the power football can have on communities. Our ongoing engagement with young people and communities also seeks to contribute to reduce the devasting effects of Covid-19 which has also led to reduced sports participation, especially within the South Asian community.”
British South Asian community ‘often overlooked’
The centre also enjoys the support of national charity Sporting Equals, who formed the British Asians in Sport and Physical Activity Board (BASPA) in 2018 to examine why British South Asians are grossly under-represented at the highest level of sport.
Just seven athletes (out of 630) from a South Asian background competed for Team GB across the 2016 Rio Olympic games and Paralympic Games. Five years on, the situation has worsened – wheelchair rugby gold medallist Ayuz Bhuta was the only British South Asian athlete across both the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.
BASPA coaching vice-chair, Manisha Tailor, MBE said: “The issues of talent pathways and support extended to British South Asian communities have been long-standing. While other ethnically diverse communities are able to find their way into elite-level sports, the British South Asian community is often overlooked.
“There is also a lot of misinformation and outdated stereotypes about our community, which has created unconscious bias towards our energy and passion for sports that aren’t just cricket or hockey.”
Khalsa Football Federation chairman, Gurdawar Singh Dhaliwal added: “The lack of representation at the UEFA Euro 2020 tournament, many would infer there isn’t an interest from our community to engage in football or perhaps we aren’t talented enough. This simply isn’t true – in 1996, Jas Bains and Raj Patel highlighted the dangers of this misinformation and attempted to rectify this with the ironically named report ‘Asians Can’t Play Football’.
“It’s sad that 25 years on, whilst the desire and talent persists within British South Asian communities, a lack of understanding, engagement, empathy and support for elite talent pathways and specific community engagement continues to block our community from reaching the professional levels we know we are capable of attaining.”
‘Proud’ Mishra wants more South Asian coaches
Meanwhile, Charlton Women assistant manager Riteesh Mishra has spoken of his pride at representing British South Asian coaches at the top level of football.
Mishra is assistant to Karen Hills at Championship side Charlton Women, making him the highest-ranked South Asian coach in the elite game in England.
“I’m very proud, for my family name and for myself, that I’m able to represent the community in women’s football and elite football in general,” Mishra told Sky Sports News.
“On the other hand, it’s quite disappointing that there haven’t been others – especially at the top end of the game – who have been able to break through. We are starting to see good progress, and I just hope the fact that I’m speaking to you can give younger coaches just the idea that you can make a profession in professional football.
“It is tough. But we can see there’s a lot of work going on behind the scenes to help coaches like myself get to the top – and then it’s about our quality, our resilience and our endeavour to try and stay there once you get into those jobs, that’s really important.”
British South Asians in Football
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