The season for me is a third of the way down the line and my team (Kitchee SC) has continued our form from last season by being top of the pile. Following my last blog which gave an introduction into football in Asia and the massive potential in the region for players, coaches and clubs I was very please to have been contacted by several PFA members wanting to find out more. Some of those lads are now preparing for trials in Asia in the next window so hopefully by the time of writing my next blog that would have gathered speed and they will be back to what they love doing best and playing competitive football once again for a living.
Another issue which seems to have gathered a lot of momentum recently, not only in the media in the UK but also here in Hong Kong and around Asia is the recent racism debacle surrounding several players and clubs. The Premier league is well supported and recognised worldwide so that means the positive, as well as, negative issues are unfortunately highlighted and given just as much attention. The affects for the players and clubs involved are very damaging both domestically and further a field - in terms of the club brand it can potentially be the end of a major sponsor from Asia because nobody wants to be associated with any forms of racism. More importantly the reputation of football in the UK needs to be kept in tact by quickly wiping away the negative perception that unfortunately these cases have contributed to right now. For this to happen we as PFA members must all link together to achieve more.
Racial discrimination against black professional footballers has attracted much media attention in recent months. With high profile events such as the Terry and Ferdinand saga it has reignited the need to discuss and revisit anti-racism in football. We constantly hear of the barriers that black mangers encounter and the overt racism that black players face. But, it is necessary to point out that racism attacks all minority ethnic groups, not just black footballers.
Yes, despite the efforts of football's key stakeholders and anti-racist organisations, we have to accept that racism, in all its forms, is still manifest in English professional football. I understand and sympathise with the obstacles black players have endured since entering the sport and while setting up a 'Black Players Association' may appear a positive step forward, it may actually further isolate the black 'community' and exclude other groups. For example, can British Asians, East Asians or South Americans (who also face racial discrimination) join in this association or would they need their own association? Hence, creating a mono-ethnic or a 'black association' would be counter-productive and would in turn exacerbate the division between social groups.
If we are to seriously attempt to combat the racism that black footballers face, surely we should then broaden this investigation and explore the racism that British Asian footballers encounter. British Asians and particularly British Asian Muslims have traditionally been excluded from the professional and grass roots game - this group face some of the barriers that black footballers encounter, however, Muslims also battle against forms of cultural racism and Islamophobia. Those of Pakistani, Indian and Bangladeshi descent have therefore remained excluded as a result of decades of discrimination. Asian football communities have had to challenge stereotypes that have been forced upon them and led to the set up of 'Asian only' leagues. I always encourage Asians kids to play in mixed leagues and not isolate themselves or ask for any special attention. I grew up with racial barriers but if I had decided to play in an Asian only league that would not have developed me as a person or player and would have made me settle for a comfort zone. Of course it's not easy but holding a grudge does not solve anything, forgiveness liberates the soul and allows for eventual progress.
Stereotypes such as having a poor diet, physicality, religion and culture are just some of the common-sense rationales that have been posed to explain the British Asian under-representation. I launched my own charitable organisation (Zesh Rehman Foundation) which is now working hard to help change perceptions and dispel some of the myths surrounding British Asians in football by providing more opportunities in disadvantaged communities - combating cultural and religious barriers associated with communities which have a high number of Asians. But most importantly, we do not just target specific groups, we ensure that we are an inclusive organisation and thus we involve all members from all communities regardless of ethnicity, religion, background, culture, gender, or disability. Put simply, creating a 'Black Footballers Association' constitutes a step back, rather than forward. We must ensure that minority groups are all given an equal say while understanding that racism does not just affect black footballers, it affects all minority ethnic groups.
I have seen some players deciding to boycott the Kick It Out t-shirt during the week of action which has caused some controversy – the views of those players who did not wear the shirts should be listened to so that we can all move forward together in striving for equality within the game. The fact that this issue has attracted so much attention means the number of cases over the past two or three decades have significantly decreased so we must not lose sight of the good work that has been done by Kick It Out, Show Racism the Red Card, the FA and the PFA. The preventative measure in place have certainly been scrutinised with intensity recently but I believe we will all learn from this to make the game better for everyone.
Rather than point the blame at KIO, we should instead aim to tackle from the bottom upwards rather than top down - more education and work is essential within the grass roots sphere. Ultimately racism stems from ignorance and a lack of education so we need to work with young people continually to make them aware of what is not acceptable as these are the future players, coaches, fans, administrators and decision makers of our game.
In sum, it is important to understand that the current focus should widen its lens and acknowledge that other minority ethnic groups also face barriers. The paucity of black managers and coaches is a real problem and must be challenged. I welcome the PFA's six-point plan to tackle racism and discrimination in the game but the discussion must be widened to incorporate the struggles that other groups face. Therefore, educating the players, coaches, managers and relevant authorities about the barriers that all minority ethnic groups encounter is essential and anyone found guilty of racial abuse be it a player, fan or official should be given a lifetime ban. To play football and be involved the game is an honour and a privilege which should be treated with respect - which means respecting everyone from ALL backgrounds and cultures.