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Page last updated at 11:20 GMT, Monday, 2 March 2009

Have Asians embraced the beautiful game?

Malta Singh and his family at Sunderland's Stadium of Light
Malta Singh and his family at Sunderland's Stadium of Light

By Sukhi Hayer
BBC Asian Network

The Premier League has compiled research that has concluded that more Asians are attending top-flight matches than ever before and most follow the 'big four' - Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal.

But to find the story behind the statistics I have been travelling up and down England for the past few months to speak to season ticket holders, club officials, fans' groups and the Premier League itself to find out how many British Asians are attending games.

Cathy Long, who is the head of supporter relations at the Premier League, says football clubs must realise that the local community has changed around them and they need to reflect these changes.

"The clubs may be sitting there and saying we're not doing anything different but if the local community around you has changed then you do need to do something different to attract more British Asians to football grounds," she stated.

It's quite difficult to get the local community involved, purely because of what it was like in the 1970s and 80s with hooliganism

Villa marketing executive Ravinder Masih

In the past, football fans have tended to be white, working-class men but that has slowly been changing over the past decade.

It has become a more family friendly environment, there are family stands where drinking is banned, billionaire owners have invested and improved facilities at grounds and hospitality at football matches is bringing in the rich and famous.

This is what has been happening at football grounds in the Premier League, none more so than at Aston Villa.

Villa marketing executive Ravinder Masih is charged with owner Randy Lerner's vision of getting more of Birmingham's diverse community through the turnstiles.

"It's quite difficult to get the local community involved, purely because of what it was like in the 1970s and 80s with hooliganism.

"People remember that and associate football with hooliganism but slowly we're changing that perception by getting people into the family stand where they can experience the game in a safe and secure environment."

In Sunderland it is a different story. The Stadium of Light is situated on open ground not surrounded by terraced housing or a big Asian community.

606: DEBATE

I travelled 200 miles to meet Malta Singh, a member of the Punjab Army, a group of Sikh fans who have embraced the club.

The message is loud and clear on Sunderland's website, click SAFC Against Racism and you will find a picture of Malta and his friends wearing red and white turbans in the crowd.

"The drummers come out, the red and white turbans come out on the big occasions where everyone is buzzing - our aim is to walk across the Tyne Bridge, eight Sikhs with their turbans and let's see what reaction we get from Newcastle United fans!" said Malta.

Malta now takes his family to the games and says racism is not a problem. He has had the odd comment but nothing that will deter him from following his beloved Sunderland.

But racism still plays a small part in deterring more Asians from attending football matches.

We're saying football is a place where every section of every community is welcome

Punjabi Wolf and author Jas Baines

Kick It Out director Piara Power thinks that clubs can still do a lot more to attract British Asian fans.

"Leicester City, for example, will have an ethnic minority majority in a few years and they need to understand that and reach out in a way that is meaningful. Also children who cannot afford to go to a match need to be given an opportunity to go and try it," said Power.

Lower down the leagues it is proving more difficult to engage the local community.

Abdul 'Butch' Fazal is the chairman of National Asians in Football Forum and has been trying to get more Asians into football for the last few years.

On most Saturdays he takes a group of British Asian children to a Luton Town game in a bid to ensure that the next generation of Luton fans will have more British Asian faces than ever before.

"For years Asians have been excluded from the game, so it is difficult to win that trust and confidence back. I think it's the not knowing what you are going to, so it's essential that parents and children get that match-day experience," he said.

It is a happier story in the Midlands. For the last five years a group called Punjabi Wolves have been making waves in Wolverhampton. They see themselves as the fastest growing ethnic minority supporters club in the world.

With more than 500 members and many of them non-Asian, Punjabi Wolves have managed to forge close links with Championship leaders Wolverhampton Wanderers.

Their aim is to help people, who have never experienced a match, feel safe and secure enough to go to a game.

Jas Baines is the author of 'Asians can't play football' and a Punjabi Wolf.

"We're saying football is a place where every section of every community is welcome. We know in the past it has had a bad image but Punjabi Wolves is a great example of showing that football is safe and cool, whoever you support."

Wolves chairman Jez Moxey thinks fans need to reach out to their local clubs and resolve issues unique to certain communities; such as letting in Sikhs who carry a ceremonial knife or Kirpan into the ground.

"We need to recognise that 15% of our local community is of Indian origin, so it's incumbent on us to make sure that in time 15% of our fans are Asian and we've made steps towards that," said Moxey.

"For example we were the first professional club in the UK to understand the importance of the Kirpan and allow it into the stadium."

The Premier League has carried out research into British Asians and will be handing its findings to its clubs. So even though more British Asians are attending football matches than ever before there is still much work to do.

A five-part BBC Asian Network series on Asian footballers and fans started on Monday 2 March and is on for the rest of the week from Tuesday to Friday as part of The Wrap at 1200 and 1800 GMT each day.

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see also
Chelsea plot Asian talent trawl
02 Mar 09 |  Football
Ahmed wants rise in Asian players
21 Nov 08 |  Mansfield
Bend it like Beckham in Rotherham
01 Aug 07 |  South Asia


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