Chelsea target talent among British Asians

LONDON - "Come on, Zeeyad!" yells Aneesa Greenspan as her 13-year-old son races around Chelsea's lush training pitch in a chilly wind. Zeeyad, one of 450 youngsters taking part in Premier League Chelsea's "Search for an Asian Star" weekend, yearns for a future in top-level football.

"I hope this is an opportunity for him to reach his dream, to be a famous footballer," his mother told Reuters. "I just have to support him along the way."

Britain has more than two million people with family roots in the Indian sub-continent but only seven Asian players in the country's professional football ranks.

Chelsea's initiative for players under 14 was aimed at finding talented youngsters and tackling the under-representation of British Asians in the sport, the club said.

"There are the typical stereotypes, like Asian people have bad diets, or not the right physical figure; of course, that is complete nonsense. Football is a game for all shapes and sizes," Chelsea's Head of Corporate Social Responsibility, Simon Taylor, told Reuters.

"There has also been a suspicion within the Asian community that football clubs don't take their issues seriously."


Danny Lynch, media officer at the Kick It Out campaign against racism in football, said there were only seven British Asian professional players.

"(It's) a tiny amount given there's approximately 2,000 players plying their trade across the four leagues," Lynch said.

"The lack of British Asians in football is still a big issue and one very much on our radar. The number of British Asians playing at the top level is completely disproportionate to the thousands across the country playing at grassroots level."

In 2004, central defender Zesh Rehman, the son of Pakistani-born parents, became the first British Asian to play in the Premier League when he joined Fulham. He is now at Bradford City in League Two.

"Historically, football as an industry hasn't really embraced the Asian community," Lynch said. "There is a myth that Asian footballers and youngsters who want to play don't have the right attitude for the game, that they like cricket more than football, and that they are physically less strong."

England's cricket team had an Indian-born captain in Nasser Hussain from 1999 to 2003 and in recent years has featured several other players of Asian extraction, with all-rounder Ravi Bopara and spin bowler Monty Panesar in the current test squad playing the West Indies.

Cricket is hugely popular in the sub-continent, where it took root during the colonial era, and has traditionally been seen as the sport of choice for young British Asians.


"We have a lot of Asian (football) teams in the U.K. but they don't compare and benchmark themselves against boys of similar ages in different cultures," Darren Grace, head scout at Chelsea's three-day event and project manager at the club's academy, told Reuters.

"Asian footballers need to try to play regularly at the highest level they can, whether that be for their local club or for a county team. That will enable them to compare themselves to the best British players," he added.

Twelve teams were registered for the 2008/2009 season with the first division of the Asian Football League (AFL), which sees itself as a bridge between communities.

"We strongly believe that social integration will aid in bringing all the communities of this country together under the banner of competitive sport, by breaking down preconceived ideas and stereotypical misconceptions about Asians," the league's charter reads.

At Chelsea's Cobham training ground, where young players from Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, and Bangladeshi backgrounds showed off their skills, 13-year-old Jordan Sadhu from the eastern edges of London was one of three age-group winners to be invited for a three-day trial in August with an academy side.

"My dream is to become a Premier League football player and just to play my Asian-style football with other British players," he said, proudly holding his player-of-the-day trophy.

Chelsea's French striker Nicolas Anelka was impressed with the young players.

"Hopefully one day someone here today will become a professional footballer for Chelsea and maybe for England," he said. "Football is international and we should see it everywhere."