Football

Why he was the last Chinese soccer star in England

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 February, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 08 February, 1995, 12:00am

ONE in five British professional football players is black, yet there is not one professional Chinese player, nor, in fact, even one Asian player.

There are Russians, a German, a Romanian, a Dutchman, and a Frenchman playing the professional game - although the latter is suspended at present - and scouts even look among African national teams in the hope of a cheap signing.

So why no Asians? Is racism the reason, or is there another explanation? Naseem Bashir made history when he played in one of the later stages of the FA Cup recently, but only because his non-league side, Aylesbury United, reached the FA Cup third round to face Premier League Queen's Park Rangers. By trade he is a window cleaner.

There have been players of mixed Chinese-English origin with club reserve teams briefly, but the last Chinese professional was Cheung Chi-doy, imported from a Hong Kong club to play for Blackpool in the 1960s.

Today you have to go to Germany to find an ethnic Chinese playing at even second division level professionally in Europe, according to Marco Yu, a restaurateur who manages one of the 10 clubs in the amateur Chinese League.

He is working to get a member of the China national team, right-winger Lee Yuk-sun, signed to a British club. But it hasn't happened yet.

But this is not because Britain's 200,000-strong Chinese community, or the wider Asian community are not interested in football. A recent study by Manchester University found 34.5 per cent of men in the local Chinese community play football at some time or another.

This is a higher proportion than for those of African or Caribbean descent who currently make up such a large proportion of professional teams. The survey found 36.5 per cent of Indians play, 43.2 per cent of Pakistanis, 47 per cent of English and a huge 60 per cent of Bengalis.

Marco Yu has a good idea why Chinese players are so under-represented: 'In this country football is very competitive and you have got to be very strong-minded to make a career out of it,' he says. 'I don't think there is any racism against the Chinese but certainly you have to try hard.' He believes some Chinese in Britain are put off in the early stages of football because they can earn more money in the traditional mainstay of the community, catering.

But there is no large-scale attempt by Chinese families in the UK to put sons off taking up the professional game, even given the well-documented vigour with which the community pursues educational qualifications, he says.

'If you really make it you can earn in two years what many other people might take a lifetime to make. By your mid-20s you will know if you are going to make it; it could be very attractive.' Twenty years ago there was not a great deal of interest in football among the recently arrived Asian community in Britain. But, as the figures show, that has changed. Nonetheless the parallels between the Chinese community and the larger, principally South Asian, Asian community are not complete.

John Williams, of the Centre for Football Research at Leicester University, believes much of the problem lies in stereotypes of the Asian held by an essentially conservative football industry. Such stereotypes portray Asians as 'difficult to accommodate' because of their different culture - it's thought their differences will get in the way. After all, it was not so long ago that famous coach Don Howe commented as England played an Islamic national team that he expected them to break off for prayers during the match.

This stereotype also sees Asians as not robust enough for the game and as lacking discipline. They are thought not to be committed because they have other career options open to them. It is the ignorant view that sees an Asian as always about to run off and open a corner shop, rather than concentrating on the sport. Of course it's not only Asians who are the subject of stereotypes; black players are viewed as lazy but nonetheless easy to discipline - a view that fits in easily with the traditional management view of English players.

'Coaches are traditionally very conservative and inflexible, they don't change their thinking very quickly,' said John Williams. 'Players are not allowed to think for themselves, they have to fit into a pattern. They are not expected to be bright or different from each other.' Add to that the views that Asian communities are tight, almost closed, to outsiders and that Asians will not integrate and a recipe for stalemate exists, based as much on ignorance as overt racism.

IN Britain there are more than 300 Asian football clubs with more than 5,000 players. Many more Asians play in mixed-race amateur sides and many Asian teams play in the summer as well as the winter - there is no lack of keenness for the game.

There are Asian leagues, just as there is a Chinese league and a Greek league. But the size and homogeneity of the Asian leagues cannot be taken as a justification for saying that these groups do not want to integrate. Many clubs were formed in the mid-70s by temples and community centres when youngsters faced discrimination from white teams.

It's only 10 years since 12 English first division managers said they would not sign a black player because 'they lack bottle [courage], are no good in the mud and have no stamina'.

In 1975 not a single black player represented England at any level and there were fewer than 20 black professionals. 'People used to say of Afro-Caribbeans, 'yes, they are good footballers but they would not want to play in this climate' - and this was of people born and brought up here,' a spokesman for Britain's Commission for Racial Equality said.

But what were the positives which led blacks to make it into English football when Asians did not? Jas Bains, an Asian who has played competitively for various amateur teams across the West Midlands believes - as do other researchers into the problem - that at least part of it stems back to 20 years ago when blacks in Britain were in a position to integrate more readily into both the indigenous culture and white football teams, despite horrendous racism both on the field and off.

Most came from a Caribbean background and they conformed more readily to Northern European culture than did Asians with their more distinct patterns of dress, diet and religion. Asian society then was relatively conservative and not readily amenable to change.

But Britain is now into its third generation of Asians. In everything from food to music, Asian cultures are becoming more widely accepted. The issue facing football is to become part of that change.

To break the stalemate, a major new initiative has been launched by Jas Bains with Raj Patel, a researcher and football enthusiast who has taken Asian teams on tours of Europe.

Taking their cue from the basketball movie White Men Can't Jump, in which the hero proves that title a myth, they have launched Asians Can't Play Football.

This study is not an academic exercise in moaning about lack of representation. It's a pragmatic attempt to find a way forward. Joint sponsors include the Football Association, the Football Trust and the Professional Footballers Association.

The aim is to find a solution and see action result. A team of field workers is interviewing players, scouts, club directors and others with a view to publication of results in August, just ahead of the new season.

Asian fans - or rather, the lack of them - are also being considered. The number of Asians watching the professional game is still disproportionately low, although growing. Clubs like Wolverhampton and West Bromwich can trace Asian supporters back for 25 years, others like Bradford City are setting up Asian supporters' clubs. Major clubs like Tottenham and Queen's Park Rangers now have sizeable Asian followings.

Nonetheless Raj Patel believes clubs still do little to attract Asian supporters. Having Asian players as role models might change that. If club managers see the commercial benefits of attracting Asian fans, they might change their attitudes. For some, it is only a matter of time, albeit longer than it needs to be.

Rogan Taylor of the Liverpool Football Research Unit believes that the Asian community is about to break through: 'But it will probably take one single very, very good player to cut his way through the kind of unconscious, subconscious barriers which the Asian players face at the moment.' Jas Bains wants clubs to look seriously at Asian talent. Both he and Taylor say the physical size argument is a non-starter. After all, Roberto Baggio weighs less than 10 stone and what club wouldn't want him? And when were many Latin Americans noted for their stature? Amid a whole series of proposals Bains expects the report to come out with, he wants to see more Asian players actually sign up for FA coaching qualification schemes. Then, hopefully, league clubs will adopt them as scouts.

The industry view is typified by the FA's Mike Parry who believes there is no racism against Asians, but that part of the answer might lie in the reluctance of Asian families to see their sons become footballers.

'Football players in this country are at a premium,' he said. 'If a football manager was walking across a park and he saw a young lad who was so good he seemed to have the ball attached to his feet it wouldn't matter if he was a Martian. He would sign him.'