Former pro Maziar Kouhyar and Beyond Entertainment’s Raz Hassan are keen to change the narrative and increase opportunities for overlooked players
When Maziar Kouhyar goes out playing football with friends in Birmingham, the comments to the 23-year-old car salesman are almost always the same.
“How are you not still playing professionally?”
That’s a bigger question than realised, but the story should perhaps start with something very different that was said to him when he was a League One player with Walsall. During one training session, Kouhyar was called a “terrorist” by a team-mate. He believes it was intended as “dressing-room banter”, but it just didn’t feel like that for Kouhyar. It was the “ultimate insult”.
“The reason we fled from Afghanistan when I was one year old was because of terrorism, and what was happening to people. So it goes deeper. It hits close to home.
“I endured years of low-level racism from team-mates, as well as that one particularly serious incident, but this kind of behaviour is so ingrained in football over so many years that people probably don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. It was horrible to experience, but I didn’t want to complain in case I was branded a troublemaker – and I felt I had no choice but to just put up with it.”
These are some of the extra pressures that British Asian players have to face, as well as the conscious racism. New research also backs up the view they are victims of structural racism in this regard.
There’s first of all the stark fact that there are only 10 British Asians among the UK’s 4,000 professional footballers – just 0.25 percent of players, compared to 7 percent of the population.
A survey conducted by the Football Supporters’ Association and new athlete life management company, Beyond Entertainment has found that less than a third (29 per cent) of the UK population thinks football is doing enough to get British Asians into professional football, while 46 per cent of football fans thinks more needs to be done. Up to 42 per cent of fans, meanwhile, feel that racism towards British Asians in football is not treated seriously enough, and 86 per cent believes more role models would increase the number of footballers.
It makes former FA chairman Greg Clarke’s comment that “there’s a lot more South Asians” working in “the IT department” all the more pointed and indicative.
Beyond Entertainment’s Razi Hassan, who appears on a Zoom call with Kouhyar to discuss the study, feels British Asian footballers are the victims of stereotypes and unfair perceptions in the game.
“There’s a whole thing around whether they are mentally or physically strong enough,” Hassan explains. “There’s the instance of a top-six scout asking parents why he would bother with a British Asian academy player as ‘he’s going to go on and become an accountant or lawyer’. So it’s that kind of unconscious bias that still exists.”
Kouhyar feels his own career is almost a case study. The attacking midfielder suffered two serious injuries – one with his meniscus, another with his anterior cruciate ligament – and can understand why Walsall ultimately released him. He is grateful to the club for the opportunity, but what has increasingly grated is the lack of opportunity from the game thereafter.
“After I came back, I sent a lot of emails trying to get trials at clubs – to National League North, National League South – and none came back to me. In the end, I just decided to go for the Toyota job when it became available.”
No one was willing to give him that second chance, or even answer him, let alone have a look at him. It is why the experiences of many black coaches strike a chord. It is as if British Asian footballers are only allowed to fail once.
“That does feel right,” he says. “Once you fail once, no second chance. I feel it’s as though, if British Asians were seen better in football, there’d be more sympathy with my story, a bit more support. I could have got through that, because a lot of players get injured; it’s part of the game – they come back and play again.
“In terms of obstacles, I think it’s got a lot to do with the perception of British Asians, like growing up to be lawyers or doctors, or not really being into physical sport.”
Hassan points to other football cultures as examples of how this can quickly change.
“One of the things that strikes me, if you look at some of the countries across Europe that have had huge success – the French national team, the German national team – they are a real representation of the national fabric. The French national team is made up of north African players, central African players. The German national team has a lot of German Turkish players. We don’t have that here. We’re missing that piece, and we are arguably the most diverse of those nations. Yet, when it comes to the football field – whether that be the national team or national league – we’re not represented.
“It’s the piece that needs work here. It’s starting to make some headway, there’s concerted effort at the top level, at the strategic level, but it needs to filter down out of the clubs into the communities. That’s where we [Beyond Entertainment] feel we can help. It is why it must be a multi-agency approach. I think there’s a lot we can learn from those countries. We should look at them and see what they’re doing right.”
Kouhyar takes up the point. “In France, scouts know to look at Asian communities in the suburbs. They know they’re going to find talent there that can develop with proper coaching. There are a lot of Asian leagues in Birmingham. If you go to them, you will find talent.”
Hassan points to the example of 17-year-old Zidane Iqbal at Manchester United, and how British Asian talent can develop if given the right surroundings.
Kouhyar, meanwhile, feels this is why the Black Lives Matter movement could be so influential.
“It has opened the door for people to speak out. I personally would never have felt like doing something like this, speaking out, because I’d feel a troublemaker. But now is the time to speak out, when people are going to listen.”
Kouhyar admits that he hopes an interview like this will see a club take a chance on him, but also that it might start to help change the thinking.
It might change some of the commentary, and not just about Kouhyar when he plays with his friends.
Original article available here: https://www.independent.co.uk/sport/football/news/british-asian-footballers-supporters-association-b1721152.html