Rather than support the country of their birth during the World Cup, some people would in all likelihood choose to support England’s group rivals instead, with their justification boiling down to “you’d never get called a Paki in Algeria”.
Whether they’ve actually ever been to Algeria or not, this is a more common attitude for British-Asian football fans than you and I might think. For every two that support England there is one who doesn’t. Instead some often fall into the Scottish category of supporting “anyone but England”. But why?
First off let’s just clear the air of any pongy smells before we get BNP members sticking to us like flies to shit. We know this article doesn’t apply to all British-Asians. Many, in fact probably the majority, will support England whole heartedly. Any look into the crowd of an England game and you will definitely notice the odd brown face and a turban here or there. These people recognise England as their home and if it wasn’t for being raised here they probably would not have found their passion for football altogether.
So what is wrong with the rest? It stems back to the old days, 40 years ago in the 1970s. England fan Hitesh Tosar (Tosar by name Tosar by nature?) explains “growing up in the 70s and 80s you would not have worn an England shirt as an Asian because there was a stigma attached to it. It suggested you were a follower of the BNP or the NF and therefore you were a traitor to other Asians.” Sadly this stigma hasn’t wilted over the decades.
England, and English football teams in general, have a bitter history with Turkish teams. Even this has indirectly hindered Asians from backing blighty. How? Unsavoury incidents that involved Manchester United and Leeds United fans whilst their respective teams played in Turkey, and pure mayhem both on and off the pitch whilst England played Turkey during the qualifying campaign in 2003/4, all gave birth to the infamous England chant “I’d rather be a Paki than a Turk”.
Akin to “I’d rather be dead than do that”, does it really need to be explained that neither option is meant to be superior or agreeable? Although said in jest, there is a definite racist undertone. So, conscious of the hostility held for Turks, somehow being viewed as better than them does not make Pakis feel any more accepted or want to don the three lions on their chest. Far from keeping Asian fans from going to England matches to support their nation, chants like this can actively turn them against England.
Piara Powar, chairman of the anti-racist football group Kick It Out spoke out strongly on the state of affairs; “Until recently, the lack of Asian support has been an impediment to integration in football. We have been seen as having a different religion and nice food which smells when you cook it”. However, ever so slightly patronising was his view that the ethnic representation which is growing is doing so because “they are also familiar with such examples of modern men as David Beckham and Michael Owen and there is generally a softer vibe around.” Softer vibe? British-Asians have been hardcore followers of domestic teams, most notably Liverpool and Manchester United, since the 90s.
On another note though, you might think it hypocritical to support a local team and not the national team when the city you support is in that nation! But, when you live in a community and pick up its accent, the propinquity is high. It’s just easier to relate to. Liverpool fans say ‘we are not English, we are Scouse” whilst because of the anti- Manchester United sentiment that used to be around England games, Man U fans now sing “you can stick your fucking England up your arse”. The mental block well built into the psyche of British-Asian football fans is that the national squad does not represent them.
At one time the likes of John Barnes, Viv Anderson and Cyril Regis prompted racist onlookers to throw bananas onto the pitch. Black people too suffered racism, probably much worse than Asians. However, since the late 80s they have been integral to the England football team, meaning any racism a tiny minority of England fans feel now has to take second place, in support of the side. But what for black footy fans? Do they feel as alienated as Asian fans? Do they support England?
Even though their players are a vital part of the line up, your average black football fan born in England is guaranteed to support the country of their origin be it Cameroon, Nigeria, Jamaica, wherever. Just not England. Guaranteed. Or at least not till their country of origin is knocked out. For Asian fans another option, well, just isn’t an option. India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka don’t feature in the World Cup yet many still will not get behind the country of their birth. Why?
Because the difference between Asians and black people is that they have now become a fundamental part of English football. Not just in the stands but on the pitch. While they can look up to players from African or West Indian heritage that play for England- Asians still seem decades away from accomplishing that feat. When a brown man plays at Wembley then British-Asians will flock to the stands and avidly support England. At the moment little wheaty-coffee coloured kids just can’t connect with the folk on the footy field. We look more like the likes of Xavi, Giovanni Van Bronckhurst, Cristiano Ronaldo and Mesut Ozil rather than Frank Lampard, Wayne Rooney and John Terry! Ok stop scoffing, maybe not in appearance but perhaps in skin tone (after they’ve tanned). This could be why many British-Asian kids are seen wearing Brazil, Holland or Spain kits. Ok again cut your cackling, this may have a little to do with how bloody good those teams are or maybe it’s just that England doesn’t yet touch the Asian soul.
Yes, tournament by tournament more British-Asian fans, albeit in very small doses are loosening up and beginning to attend games, showing positive support and mixing with the majority white crowd to cheer on “Ing- Er-Land”! Nonetheless, for some Asians, football, especially in England, is a tribal sport. The stark lack of Asian players in the game, combined with the reality that the historic footprints of racism have followed us out of the past and into today, mean that many British-Asians do not feel like England is their tribe.