Pele, Maradona, Cruyff ... Khan?

7th November 1997 at 00:00
Wakar Ahmed used to play football for the same youth team as David Beckham,and dreamed of being a professional. "I reckon there wasn't much between us," he says. "But I didn't get the chance."

Now Wakar plays for Red Star Athletic in the London Asian Football League,and can be seen huffing and puffing across Hackney marshes most Sunday afternoons against other Asian sides such as the Punjab Tigers from Croydon, or Kappelle from Manor Park. Meanwhile, Beckham struts his stuff at Old Trafford and Wembley, in the colours of Manchester United and England. "I don't know why I didn't make it," says Wakar. "I think football clubs are afraid; they're not prepared to take the risks with Asians. But it'll just take one of us to break through, then the floodgates will open."

There has never been an Asian player in the Premier League, and the fact that only a handful have ever played at professional level remains an anomaly in a sport which is increasingly international and multiracial. Quite why this is so has been the subject of various research reports and journalistic enquiries. But what if an Asian footballer did make it? What would happen then?

A new touring children's play by Arc Theatre Ensemble examines the racial and cultural problems that have been associated with football. In 1995 and 1996 Arc performed Kicking Out, its highly successful play about racism in football, to more than 100,000 young people. The new play, Ooh Aah Showab Khan, follows the progress of a character from Kicking Out. Now an up-and-coming young pro, Showab Khan is making his name under the glare of the Premier League spotlight - a bit like David Beckham, in fact. Well, not quite . . .

As the first Asian player in the Premier League, Showab Khan attracts a premiership load of problems, from crowd chants of "You dirty Paki bastard" to the inevitable nickname of Gandhi from team mates and coach. "It's nothing to do with your colour, it's your attitude," says the boss when Showab complains about being dropped. "Save our game from a Paki invasion", screams a leaflet from the club's resident fascist fan. Showab even attracts the attention of a journalist who wants him to be an anti-racist role model. "But I just want to play football," he protests.

There are thousands of real Asian hopefuls out there who would recognise Wakar's plea. A 1996 report into Asian football by researchers Jas Bains and Raj Patel cited evidence that "young British males of Asian origin are actually keener players than their white counterparts". In 1991, a Manchester University study found that 60 per cent of Bengalis play football, compared with 47 per cent of the white English population, and a higher proportion of Pakistanis, east African Asians and Indians play than Caribbeans or Africans.

This picture of enthusiasm is confirmed by scenes at Stepney Green school in east London, where 90 per cent of the pupils are Asian. At lunchtime the playground is a hazard of makeshift goals, bouncing balls and Ryan Giggs wannabes; inside the desks are scrawled with football graffiti. Across the country, at Greenwood Dale Comprehensive in Nottingham, it's the same story. Here nearly half the pupils are Asian. "They all love football," says the deputy head, Jackie Simpson. "They play at every opportunity and in the school team."

Unfortunately, too many football club scouts and officials believe Asians don't or can't play, claiming it's not in their culture; that their parents put them off and push them into academia or the family business; that they're not strong enough; that they "eat the wrong foods" and "don't have that hunger", as one youth-team coach puts it.

Arc's play explores these common prejudices and lazy myths, presenting its young audiences with situations that they will recognise. The familiar football clichs and stereotypes provide a context in which wider prejudices are examined - the occasional "love" or "pet" is dropped patronisingly in the direction of the female journalist, for example, and at a football trial a PE teacher tells Wakar Khan that "the cricket season starts next term, lad".

"Some of it's shocking stuff for the kids to hear in a school context," says Kiri Tunks, a drama teacher at Stepney Green. "But that's good because it relates to their lives and gives their experiences status - and that doesn't happen often."

At Greenwood Dale each racist taunt between the characters on stage is met with a mixture of nervous laughter and an uncomfortable shuffling recognition from the teenage audience. "It got the message across really well," said 15-year-old Zalay afterwards, to nods of agreement from his football-loving mates. "And it's pretty realistic. You do see people like that Combat 18 guy at football matches. "

"We want to get a reaction from the kids, to get them going," explains Trian Aakel, the actor who plays Wakar. "In the play, Showab stands out because he's different so he gets all this attention. But in the end he has to decide whether to keep his head down and take the abuse or stand up for who he is. And everyone has to do that to some extent. Black footballers faced it in the 1970s."

Nowadays, players of African or Caribbean origin make up about 25 per cent of all professionals at English clubs and are an essential part of the international team. Players like Liverpool star Paul Ince and Arsenal's Ian Wrigh.

Twenty-five years ago, when black players first began to make their mark on the game, they encountered racism at almost every ground. But football has changed dramatically over the past five years. The "Let's Kick Racism Out of Football" campaign and the work of fans' groups have made routine racist activities such as banana-throwing and monkey-chanting largely things of the past. But racism has not gone away. Ince and Wright are just two of an impressive array of top Premier League and international players who feature in a new video, "Show Racism the Red Card", speaking out about racism in the game.

Like the play, the video uses the appeal of football to get a message to schools and youth clubs. "Young people look to footballers as heroes," says Ged Grebby, co-ordinat or of Show Racism the Red Card. "Our aim is to promote them as anti-racist role models. The video is a celebration of multiculturalism, showing how footballers from all over the world play together in successful teams."

Well, from almost all over the world. For there's still a significant community of British people who don't get to play in the big boys' league. No doubt it will happen, in two, or five, or 10 years' time. And if Wakar Ahmed's right, when the first Showab Khan gets through, a tide of Asian talent will come flooding through in his wake. And there are plenty of boys at Greenwood Dale who wouldn't mind riding that wave.

To book a performance of Ooh Aah Showab Khan, telephone Arc Theatre Ensemble on 0181 594 1095. For more information about Show Racism the Red Card, telephone Kick it Out on 0171 288 6012

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