‘The question I’m asked most is: When will football get its own Moeen Ali?’
Posted: Mon, 05 Nov 2018 12:14
From: Alison Rudd, The Times
Asians face the same barriers to stardom as Afro-Caribbean youngsters did in the 1970s, Alyson Rudd discovers...
Gareth Southgate's England team is largely successful, often beloved and multicultural. So what? Given that October marked Black History Month and the Football Black List awards last week celebrated the contribution of African and Caribbean figures in the sport, it is worth travelling back to 1973 when Lincoln Moses established Continental Star, a football team for black youngsters in Birmingham who could not leave their front gate without risking racial abuse or physical attack.
Now, when Moses tells black teenagers that they can be who they want to be, he knows that he is not spinning them a lie. When he started out, Continental were not allowed to join a league. Moses assumed that his players were not good enough. It turned out that there was a colour bar.
One of the club's biggest success stories is how Romaine Sawyers came through their ranks and is now with Brentford. "It was very comforting, homely, it always had its doors open, it gave me a positive light to shine," Sawyers says. "I am 26 and, 26 years ago, Lincoln was pushing the boundaries and as one of his success stories it's my duty to keep pushing.
"I'm an inner-city child and I know people that have gone down not the nicest of paths but I use that as motivation not to be another one."
Sawyers and Moses know that the next challenge is for young adults of Asian heritage to be able to look at the England team, see themselves reflected there and feel a deeper connection to their communities. Moses is keen on "early intervention", on steering those with few academic qualifications towards apprenticeships, teaching them about finding a place to live, to manage their limited resources. It helps a lot that he can tell them that there is a point to having dreams. He can tell them to look at Southgate's squad.
"I can tell them, 'You can be the next one' rather than listening to negativity preached to them," Moses says. He cannot, though, point to England when dealing with a disillusioned young adult of Asian heritage. "Without a shadow of a doubt," he says, young Asians today face the same sense of exclusion that Caribbean kids felt in 1973. "If you speak to young Asian lads now, you see the similarities."
Moses, as a consequence, has helped to develop West Midlands Active Citizen, which aims to use sport as a vehicle for education about and protection against radicalisation. His co-director is Obayed Hussain, a British Bangladeshi, about to take his Uefa B licence, who grew up believing that he could not succeed in football.
Do role models matter? Hussain says that there has been a big shift among the local Asian community from supporting the obvious big clubs such as Manchester United to wanting to watch Aston Villa and West Bromwich Albion — and the reason for the shift is that Easah Suliman, the first player of Asian heritage to captain an England team, came through the ranks at Villa, and West Brom nurtured Adil Nabi, although the 24-year-old midfielder of Pakistani descent was unable to break into the first team.
"It's absolutely massive, really important that young footballers see Asian and South-East Asian role models in the various England teams," he says. "Football is important for learning discipline, integration, community cohesion."
Hussain was spotted by the FA after he set up 12 teams at his college and he was appointed as an equality officer. He sees young adults, usually second-generation Asians, arrive with the sort of cynicism that he possessed when in his teens but, when educated about how the football pyramid works, "you can see the passion, they believe they can become a professional. At the beginning, they think they can't."
Is this enough, though, to help prevent radicalisation? "We don't just say, 'Play football and go home'," Hussain says. "We provide workshops and educational courses, coaching courses, refereeing courses. We have focus groups and discuss how to counter radicalisation and extremism."
He can spot those who are at risk because of what they post on social media or the inappropriate language that they use while playing. He has, over the past 12 months, established the Birmingham Sunday Football Communities League, which has 18 teams and is aimed at encouraging those who feel marginalised to become part of a club. When the FA noted that during Ramadan participation levels dropped, they asked Hussain for help and he co-founded the Midnight Ramadan League two years ago. "It provides engagement during that month when young people are disengaged from activity," he says.
When it was rumoured that Mohamed Salah would be weakened by fasting during the Champions League final, Hussain used the sudden interest in Ramadan to educate young players. Nabi came to meet the teams to explain his training regime and how his various clubs were accommodating about his beliefs and Hussain, as an imam, was able to reassure panicked Liverpool supporters "that people who are travelling don't need to fast".
The question that Hussein is asked most often, however, is 'When will football have its own Moeen Ali'? "I'd like to say tomorrow," he says, "but football has to be fixed at the grassroots level first. You have to look at how many Asians are playing non-League and semi-pro football. Everyone wants a footballing Moeen but not everyone is doing the work to get there.
Sawyers warns against rushing through a token Asian presence. "It's got to be taken rather than given," the midfielder says. "You can put an Asian in the England squad and say to the Asian community, 'He's the showpiece, the trophy', and I don't think it will make a difference if it is a token gesture.
"It's having the patience for someone from the Asian community to play in the Premier League for four or five years and get an England call-up. There are examples, maybe not as many as the Asian community would like, but it is about motivation, it's down to the individual to want to be the one to break the barrier rather than want a token gesture."