We are so often told that football is a universal language, a game to be played by all, no matter your background, race or creed. This is apparent from the rich diversity of players who have graced the Premier League in recent years, and the vast audiences who tune in to watch games week in week out.
On the first weekend of the Premier League in August 1992, there were 13 foreign players in action. A quarter of a century on and it is a very different story. Foreign talent accounts for 68 percent of the players in the Premier League and there are an impressive 57 different nationalities featured in the competition.
However, to date, the number of British Muslims who have played professional football in the UK remains in the single-figures – and I, fortunately, am one of them.
Underrepresentation of South Asians and specifically the British Muslim community at top-level football is a challenge to be addressed at the Football Association (FA), not least by Rimla Akhtar MBE, a good friend of mine, who was recently appointed as the first female Muslim to the FA Council.
While many would argue that more can be done at a federation level to encourage better grassroots participation – in my opinion – I believe it’s another hurdle, one closer to home, that can hold talented South Asian and Muslim players back from delivering on their potential: the family culture.
As a young Muslim, I am all too familiar with the stereotypes, prejudices and fears that many – often relatives – have that the sport is incompatible with the principles of their faith. I frequently speak with parents who, whilst having talented sporting youngsters in their families, are reluctant to encourage their children to pursue such avenues.
The belief that football promotes a ‘laddish’ drinking culture, an over-indulgent, womanising lifestyle and compromises a decent education may be an image often promoted by the media but one which is misleading and, in my opinion, detracts from the many benefits.
Firstly, there are a number of parallels between faith and football which need to be better communicated both to parents and to the children themselves before these stereotypes can be corrected. Just as Islam emphasises importance around how we treat our bodies, football encourages us to nutritionally and physically condition ourselves.
Elsewhere, the skills learned on the pitch around relationships, keeping a healthy lifestyle and working hard towards personal and collective goals can be transferred and used in any aspect of life to make well-rounded and strong individuals.
For me, football has complimented and strengthened my commitment to my faith. In the same vein, faith has been one of the defining ingredients to my success on and off the football pitch. But, it was the support of my mother that helped me to where I am today.
If it were not for my mother, I would have turned my back on football during a low point in my career when, at the age of 18, I was plagued by injury after injury. It was her encouragement, knowing how much the sport meant to me, that spurred me on to continue. She has been instrumental to my success and showed me just how important pastoral support really is.
It is her, through her continued support, and my resulting career that led me to launch the Altus League earlier this year. The ultimate goal of the project is to bridge the gap between South Asian kids, parents, and football but, also to help create better, healthier and confident individuals, skills which can be taken and used in any walk of life or career.
Encouraging children to join a Sunday league team, participate in school extracurricular activities or even joining a kick-about in the local park could do wonders for their health and confidence, especially at a time when overseas Muslim role models in the game are taking hold.
Take, for example, the revelation Mo Salah who I was lucky enough to meet on Sunday evening at the PFA awards. Being named the PFA’s Player of the Year, an accolade awarded to the best player in England is a huge step forward for the broader Muslim community, and the ensuing outpouring of affection given by British fans to the Egyptian Muslim shouldn’t be underestimated. He has had a magnificent first season at Liverpool, and recognition of his faith being a key factor in that success, is something to be celebrated.
The sight of players such as Mesut Ozil and Paul Pogba performing Islamic prostration or gesturing towards God with their fingers is an increasingly common feature, whilst fans’ adherence to tolerance and respect in chants such as the viral-worthy “if he scores another few, I’ll be Muslim too” chant, should be cause for immense pride. Such role models are instrumental in combatting Islamophobia, and should be held up as an example by which future standards are set.
It is a responsibility for all of ours to challenge messages of hate and exclusion, and sport has created the perfect platform by which to communicate that and to create understanding between people of different faiths and backgrounds.
Football is arguably the biggest game in the world and for too long now the South Asian and British Muslim communities have been sitting on the sidelines. As we continue to break down stereotypes, hopefully it won’t be too long before we see the Moeen Ali or Amir Khan of Premier League football. Until then, however, we need change from those who really matter to this broken formula – parents and families, it starts with you.