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Crônicas | October 2005

Asians can't/can play football

Leicester, England, Oct 27 | Like small-fry petitioners in the Dr. Seuss fairy tale "Horton Hears a Who," forgotten groups of footballers must,
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The Asians Can Play Football report notes positive trends in the U.K., among them that London APSA and Sporting Bengal have become the first Asian sides to play in the FA Cup. Both were eliminated in the first preliminary round.
from time to time, scream "We are here!" We should probably add exclamation points, as they must scream pretty loudly. Women players must scream all the time. Now Asians in the U.K. are screaming (as are Asian women). In the latest report from the Asians in Football Forum (Asians Can Play Football: Another Wasted Decade, September 2005)—a follow-up to a 1996 report titled, ironically, "Asians Can't Play Football"—authors take English football authorities to task for not doing more to bring Asians into the sport's mainstream. (In the U.K., "Asians" refers to those from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The term "oriental" refers to those from China and other East and South Asian countries.) The report lists positive developments, but Jas Bains, chair of the forum, responds, "So what? It may feel like the game is changing, and initiatives in the sport may be multiplying, but all the evidence confirms that change in behaviour at the highest levels of the game still lags lamentably behind any real change in attitude or in stated policy" ("Asians Can Play Football, 2005," p. 5). One of the most frequently cited statistics is the dearth of Asian players at the top levels of English football: only four play professionally and just two— Michael Chopra at Newcastle United and Zeshan Rehman at Fulham—in the Premiership. This is despite a 2001 population of 2.3 million South Asians. Further, the proportion of Asian players connected to Premiership clubs' youth academies is 0.8 percent.

"Often we are judged before we are watched," says Zesh Rehman of Fulham. His parents are from Pakistan. Rehman is interviewed as part of a BBC 1Xtra documentary, "Asian Footballers" (5 April).

Some who want to play at an amateur level, Bains writes, feel that they must join all-Asian leagues "partly because of a lack of confidence in local [Football Association] decision makers to afford adequate protection against racism and partly because it remains a way in which the community seeks to fill the gap." An "Asians in Football" conference will convene on 7 November in Leicester to discuss issues in the report. Bains, who also co-wrote Corner Flags and Corner Shops: The Asian Football Experience (Victor Gollancz, 1998), and fellow report authors do not shirk in describing progress, such as programs at Leicester City, Leeds United and West Ham to recognize Asian groups' passion for the sport. Especially intriguing is the Sharrow United side, developed through Football Unites, Racism Divides in Sheffield. Three teenagers started the ball rolling in 2000 by gaining entry to an 11-a-side Sunday league. The polyglot team has since been promoted twice, despite having faced racism and physical abuse from opponents. "There're still people wanting to come out and break our legs," one Sharrow player tells BBC Five. "They think we're going to be easy . . . but it's not like that, it's never been like that." This stated desire to play clashes with dubious claims that Asians are physically disadvantaged; some members of the Asian community say that households tend to emphasize education over sport.

Another stereotype, of course, is that those from South Asian backgrounds have more interest in cricket. A Manchester University study in 1991, however, found that Asian males had the highest rates of participation in football of any ethnic grouping (higher, on average, than white boys). Interest among females has also been expanding. In Corner Flags and Corner Shops, Bains and Sanjiev Johal write that women used to be content with their own social events while men played volleyball, hockey or kabbadi—a 7-on-7 version of tag with roots in rural India—at meets such as the Shaheedi Udham Singh Games. At school, girls were directed toward netball, but in Leicester, as of 1998, there were more than 20 teams in a girls' football league. With an Asian population of some 40 percent, many of these girls are of South Asian households. "There is a new era of school teachers of an Asian background, especially in primary schools," says Hema Chauhan, a Leicester sports-development official. "They have really forced this issue about Asian girls and sport" (202).

Sammy Chung at Ipswich Town. (http://kindred-spirit.co.uk/)

We will condense discussion of the cultural barriers facing those from Japan, China, Korea and other "oriental" contexts. We can recommend, though, a recent Observer (U.K.) article that addresses the issue (Anna Kessel, "Lost in Translation," 23 October). Kessel mentions the subtleties of Western and Eastern language systems as one area of struggle. Hidetoshi Nakata of Bolton, for example, says that he has struggled in getting accustomed to forthrightness in speech. The Japanese, he says, use different systems for different occasions, depending on how well the conversation partners know each other; there is overriding reliance, though, on tatemae to honne, a principle stating that one holds back true opinions so as not to embarrass another person. Such reasons and numerous others help explain why there have only been two British footballers with East Asian backgrounds: Frank Soo, who played for Stoke in the 1930s and '40s, and Sammy Chung, whose father was Chinese and who played for Reading and Norwich. As co-manager of Wolverhampton in the 1970s, Chung had to read racist accounts such as one from a Birmingham sportswriter: ". . . the Blues finally found a chink in Chung's defence." In the pecking order of Asian nationalities in Britain, it would appear, in football at least, that some backgrounds prove even more of a hindrance than others.

The season for atonement

Link to Bundesdance 2005
Chancellor-in-waiting Angela Merkel heads the field in Bundesdance 2005, presented by Sueddeutsche Zeitung. Note a tiny Jens Lehmann in blue, in front of the Allianz Arena.
Berlin, Oct 15 | Angela Merkel will lead a "grand coalition" of Christian and Social Democrats as chancellor. She will become the first woman and the first from the former East Germany to head the government. Analysts read the hardly overwhelming result as a triumph over the backward-looking achtundsechziger ("68ers"), those of ex-chancellor's Gerhard Schröder's ilk who began a slow rise in the late 1960s and started on a cultural course of engagement with the Nazi past (see Frederick Studemann, "Germany Swings to a Pragmatic Generation," Financial Times). As always, these political changes can be read against the developments in football, in which the angst of a referee match-fixing scandal moving to trial and dubious international results less than eight months before the World Cup form the backdrop to publication last month of Fußball unterm Hakenkreuz (Football under the swastika). Commissioned in 2001 by the German football federation (DFB), the book brings to completion the three-year study by University of Mainz lecturer Nils Havemann, the first to gain full access to DFB archives. Havemann describes the football association as having played "a contributing role to the stability of the Nazi rulers." Thus, DFB members "deserve a share of the guilt for the suppression, persecution, war and annihilation" of Jews and other "undesirables" (Erik Kirschbaum, "Book Probes Nazi Past of German Federation," Reuters, 14 September).

On the cover of Havemann's book, German players give the stiff-armed salute before a 1941 match against Sweden in Stockholm.

Andrei Markovits, professor of comparative politics and German studies at the University of Michigan and co-author of Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism, goes further. By dint of a prevailing conservatism that had banned English terms such as "corner kick" and "touchline," German football authorities, according to Markovits, integrated seamlessly with the Nazi program. "[I]n Nazism, the DFB found a good ally, a soulful affinity" (Jack Bell, "German Federation Admits to Nazi Past," New York Times, 20 September). Uli Hesse-Lichtenberger, in his 2002 book, Tor! The Story of German Football, already had found evidence supporting such conclusions. In the chapter titled "Angst and Anschluss: Football under the Nazis," Hesse-Lichtenberger writes that as early as April 1933 football authorities pronounced in kicker that "members of the Jewish race, and persons who have turned out to be followers of the Marxist movement, are deemed unacceptable" (80). The Nazification of German football clubs thus preceded by several weeks the official government order to expel Jews from welfare organizations, youth groups and sporting clubs. German international Julius Hirsch, a longtime member of FV Karlsruhe, and thousands of other Jews were forced to leave their clubs. Hirsch ultimately was murdered at Auschwitz. Sepp Herberger, manager of the side that defeated Hungary in the 1954 World Cup final—what Markovits calls "the most important event in Germany becoming the Federal Republic" and depicted in Das Wunder von Bern—also had ties to the Nazi past, but his ultimate allegiance seems unclear in Hesse-Lichtenberger's account.

In an incredible happenstance before the G-8 summit last year in Sea Island, Georgia, Schröder stumbles upon a group of kids with some footballs on an airport tarmac. A perfect opportunity to juggle. (Haraz Ghanbari | AP)

Moving forward rapidly to the present angst-ridden period—"Everyone is afraid" is how one Munich resident described the pre-election feeling (James Meek, "Berlin Blues," The Guardian, 15 September)—political realities suggest a period of Margaret Thatcher–style benefit-cutting. Unemployment in the unified republic stands at 11.5 percent (20 percent in eastern Germany). Population growth is 0 percent. Economic growth, similarly, is stagnant. In football, one team from the former East Germany, Hansa Rostock, remains in the Bundesliga's top flight. "Football has thus become a metaphor for the failure of the united Germany," writes the Times of London's Owen Slot ("East Germans Try to Arrest Decline by Bringing Back Player Production Line," 16 September). "[E]ast cannot match west economically and its football clubs cannot match up either." Football proved of no help to Schröder. (Covering all bases, Schröder is said to support three clubs: the working-class Borussia Dortmund, his hometown Hanover 96 and FC Cottbus from the east.) Plans to hold the election in September 2006, in the glow of a successful World Cup, went awry when events forced the polling forward by one year. Manager of the German national team, Jürgen Klinsmann, finds himself cast about, too, by uncertainties resulting from changes he has brought to the side: a different training regimen and his own decision to run much of team business from his home outside Los Angeles (see Rob Hughes, "The Big Interview: Jürgen Klinsmann," The Sunday Times [U.K.], 2 October). He has been summoned to an emergency meeting with the Bundesliga president the weekend of 22–23 October. He will be called to account.

Donning the hijab for a full 90

Iranian women in hijab sing at opening ceremonies of the West Asian Football Federation Women's Championship on 23 September. (Reuters)
Tehran, Iran, and Amman, Jordan, Oct 7 | Several women's football competitions have concluded recently in the Arab world. The events again call on cross-cultural sensitivities to assimilate the reality of women competing in gender-segregated environments and in Islam-mandated dress. The fourth international Islamic Women's Games—incorporating 1,700 athletes from 40 countries, including, for the first time, an American (Scott Peterson, "In Iran, US Runner Joins the Races," Christian Science Monitor, 29 September)—concluded on 29 September in Iran. The women played futsal, as this has been the preferred form of the game since Iranian clerics authorized soccer for women in 1998. The first national women's football championship concluded in Pakistan at about the same time last week, drawing more notice in the world press than would have been customary for what the Pakistan Daily Times stereotypically branded a "catfight" at game's end ("Punjab Win Inaugural Women's Football Championship," 30 September). The BBC gleefully called the final—won by Punjab, 1–0, over a water-development-authority team at Jinnah Stadium in Lahore—a "soccer punch-up" given the 13 minutes required to calm disputes after a penalty kick.

Iran lost 2–1 to host Jordan in the final of the West Asian Football Federation Women's Championship on 1 October. The Iranian women,

Iran's Shihrin Nasri, left, competes during the final. (Muhammad Al-Kisswany | AP)
as pictured at left, played in hijab and long pants, while Jordan played in shorts. This variance in itself illustrates the multiple interpretations of Islamic practice. Gertrud Pfister, in an essay on women and sport in Iran, makes clear that there are no prohibitions on girls' and women's sports ("Women and Sport in Iran: Keeping Goal in the Hijab?" in Sport and Women: Social Issues in International Perspective, ed. Ilse Hartmann-Tews and Gertrud Pfister [Routledge, 2003], 211). Sayings attributed to Mohammed recommend an active life, with running, horseback riding, swimming and archery mentioned specifically. Islamic concern for "one's body, cleanliness, purification and force" ultimately collides, however, with values confining women to home and family spheres. (The need for modesty extends to men also, with the Iranian football federation last year banning ponytails and "sculpted beards"; male athletes are to cover their bodies between the navel and the knees.) The general feeling appears to be one of progress for women in Islamic communities, with interest in sport on the rise and opportunities for participation expanding. The Times of London, for example, reported before the Islamic Women's Games on the entry of a football side from Great Britain. Girls participate in activities such as the West Ham Asians in Football Project. "[I]f you travel down to the playing fields of East London, it is likely that you will see hijab-wearing girls playing football with their friends and brothers, something that would have been unthinkable 20 year ago" (Matthew Syed, "Muslim Women Leading Gentle Revolution with a Football," 21 September).

Although Indian tennis player Sania Mirza now and, before her, the Algerian runner Hassiba Boulmerka drew wrath for competing with legs uncovered, organizers of the Islamic Women's Games say the intent is to encourage women rather than to stifle them further. "We are seeking to empower and encourage Muslim women, who are absent from the international sports grounds due to their beliefs," says Faezeh Hashemi, daughter of former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Hashemi started the pan-Islamic women's competition in 1993. Women from Iran have been able to compete in past Asian Games and Olympics in shooting and kayaking, in which covering the body does not present a barrier to competition.

Maud Watson, who in 1884 became the first women's champion at Wimbledon, models the tennis fashion of the day.
Lest Westerners tut-tut at these traditional ways, Syed in his Times article rightly points out that misogyny features in both the Quran and the Bible; Muslims, in general, remain more faithful to the literal word, although Roman Catholics, Mormons and the Southern Baptist Convention in the United States deny priestly ordination to women. And, on the matter of sporting apparel, Sarah Murray in an intelligent essay for the Women's Sports Foundation points out that female tennis players and cyclists in the West earlier had been confined in petticoats and corsets ("Unveiling Myths: Muslim Women and Sport," 16 January 2002). Islamic women athletes also share with their Judeo-Christian (and non-religious) counterparts a lack of representation in radio, television, print and online media. "Ambitious women's sports coverage remains a virtual oxymoron in the United States[,] where women have been competing for well over a century," Murray writes. "If we struggle for equitable media coverage of women's sports, imagine how the scenario is exacerbated in places where women's sports are in earlier stages of development."

Update: An article in Women's E-News brings out the cultural importance of the Women's Islamic Games (Khadeeja Balkhi, "Islamic Games Highlight Camaraderie of Women," 30 September). Some 10,000 attended the 18 events; the opening ceremony caused "huge traffic jams" and made news as male and female dancers performed together.

Page last updated on Tuesday, November 22, 2005 16:56 -0500 GMT.