Asian footballers call out 'systemic racism' in grassroots football

By Rahil SheikhBBC Asian Network
Foyal Ali, footballer for Sporting Bengal
'Grassroots football is still very, very racist,' says Sporting Bengal's Foysal Ali

"I've been called a P***. I've been told I smell like curry. It doesn't sound nice, but I just took it on the chin."

Foysal Ali, 35, plays under the shadow of the wealth of the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf, for one of the most successful British Asian football teams in the country.

Sporting Bengal, based in Mile End, east London, formed in 1996 to give the local British Asian community a chance to play the game, at a time when those opportunities appeared limited.

Racist abuse has been making unwelcome headlines, with Tottenham and England defender Danny Rose saying in early April that he "can't wait to see the back of football" because of the lack of action taken by authorities to tackle the problem.

For players such as Ali, though, the problem is at its loudest and most damaging in the grassroots game.

"Grassroots football is still very, very racist and is designed to work against ethnic minorities, particularly British Asians," said Ali.

"It's just become normal to be called the 'P' word, or even judged as not being a good player, just because I'm Asian.

"I've heard coaches at this level say Asians don't have the build for the game, we're not tall enough, don't have the physicality or athletic ability, which is just nonsense, but this mentality has held players back in the sport."

For his team mate, Rokhib Choudhury, 23, racism in football is getting worse.

He said: "Just a few weeks ago we [Sporting Bengal] played a game and I went in for a 50-50 tackle with the opposition player. To be fair he came off worst, I picked him up, apologised and tried get on with the game, but the assistant on their bench said 'smash that smelly ****'."

"He felt so comfortable saying that, knowing nothing would happen to him. I just remember thinking: This was pure racism. What have I ever done to deserve that?

"I have to say that grassroots football is very racist but I feel like the higher up you go, the worse it gets."

How much of a problem is this? According to Tajean Hutton, grassroots manager for equality campaign body Kick It Out, racism targeted at Asian players is often overlooked.

Hutton said: "Often when people talk about racism in football, the abuse aimed at black people is brought up as an example only. This is damaging to the Asian community.

"In England, there are leagues specifically designed for Asian inclusion in the game, because of the lack of opportunity and inclusion British Asians receive at higher levels."

Sporting Bengal have also complained about receiving racist treatment from referees.

Ali said: "There was an incident where a referee swore at me, in a way that I felt: why would he do that?

"He then started laughing at me with the players from the other team. Just because a racist term wasn't used, it doesn't mean they are not being racist."

Imrul Gazi, manager of Sporting Benga
Imrul Gazi, manager of Sporting Bengal, says his players have been left dejected by some of their on-field experiences

Sporting Bengal manager Imrul Gazi, who he guided the side to the first qualifying round of the FA Cup in 2016-17, claims referees consistently discriminate against his side.

He said: "We are a very diverse team. When my players come in at half-time, dejected, not wanting to go back out there for the second half - saying 'what's the point?' because every decision is going against them - there has to be a problem. My players have been genuinely upset in the changing rooms.

"We have white players on our team and on one occasion, a referee told a non-Asian player, 'your lot are not winning this game'."

Hutton is not surprised about allegations of racist referees at grassroots level, saying: "From a course perspective, in order to be qualified as a referee, there is nothing within any of those modules, that challenges the mind of someone who could potentially be racist. Which means people can be qualified as referees, with the mindset of a racist."

Sporting Bengal first team
Sporting Bengal reached the first qualifying round of the FA Cup in 2016-17

In a recent cup semi-final match, Gazi called his players off the pitch, accusing the referee of "blatant racism" towards his players, although the Essex Senior League said the official in question had been threatened by Sporting Bengal's players. The game was abandoned.

"The referee had made countless decisions against our side, showed bias towards the team we were playing," Gazi said.

"Three of our players were sent off and one of them was mistaken identity. We felt from what we were watching there was an agenda against us. Just because it wasn't direct racism, it doesn't mean it's not racism. One of my players who was wrongly sent off was angry and vented his frustration to the referee.

"If it feels racist, it probably is racist."

Since then, Sporting Bengal have sent a report to both the Essex Senior League and the London Football Association, detailing their accusations of bias by officials against them.

An Essex Senior League spokesperson said: "This match was abandoned by the match referee due to threats of a serious nature being levied towards both him and opposition players. This matter is currently being investigated by the FA.

"Essex Senior League is a diverse league and as such takes all forms of discrimination extremely seriously."

The London FA, which is responsible for appointing officials for the league, said: "The London FA take any allegations of discrimination extremely seriously.

"We have opened an investigation into the incident at this fixture and encourage anyone with details to contact us directly. As this investigation is now live we will be making no further comment at this time."

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