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South Asian women and football: In conversation with Dev Trehan

A diminutive British Indian girl with a football glued to her feet, weaving her way through a torrent of boys before she scores a goal. This is one of the opening shots of the famed Gurinder Chadha film Bend It Like Beckham.

It ends with the protagonist, Jesminder ‘Jess’ Bhamra, leaving her Hounslow home to go to the United States to pursue a career in professional women’s football.

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Parminder Nagra in a still from ‘Bend It Like Beckham’ (Image source: Getty Images)

In today’s day and age female footballers can pursue a professional career within England itself, but…there’s a caveat. 

The representation of South Asian women’s footballers remains a glaring anomaly in the ecosystem of the beautiful game as it is played on the land of its birth.

In a candid conversation, Sky Sports football journalist Dev Trehan opens up about the participation of South Asian heritage players in competitive women’s football, and other relevant issues in English sports media from a South Asian perspective.

 

South Asian female footballers in England: Finding a needle in a haystack

The women’s football sector is growing by leaps and bounds in England: the WSL sold out stadiums for major games this past season, Emirates Stadium will be Leah Williamson and co.’s main home next season, and Karen Carney’s independent review of women’s football has been accepted in its entirety by the UK Government to say the least.

But, there is still a gaping hole when it comes to the women’s football landscape in England, where South Asian-heritage girls are often overlooked. One of the recommendations of Carney’s review is to address the lack of diversity both on and off the pitch, with the work clearly cut out for all stakeholders.

“Football has failed diverse ethnic communities when it comes to the women’s game – the evidence points to that,” said Trehan, who was the first journalist to call out the lack of ethnic representation in the England Women’s Euro 2022 squad.

He added: “There has also been a void of leadership around British South Asians in football. You need the real-life Bend It Like Beckhams if you’re going to make women’s football the billion-pound industry that many hope the women’s game will become.”

But, there are still outliers when it comes to female icons in English football. Blackburn Rovers midfielder Milie Chandrana is a trailblazer for female footballers of South Asian descent

South Asian Women Football

Millie Chandarana (left) with Dev Trehan (centre) (Image source: Dev Trehan)

Trehan, who is an FA-accredited Level 2 scout, is Millie’s mentor as part of the South Asians in Football Leadership Scholarship, offered by the University Campus of Football Business and Global Institute of Sport. 

About the 26-year-old, Trehan said: “I keep telling Millie ‘You’re one of one. You’re the only player from a South Asian background with a professional contract in the Women’s Championship.’”

ALSO READ – South Asian women and football: In conversation with Millie Chandarana

“She’s a real textbook example of what you have to do to make it, to give yourself half a chance to make it in the game,” he added.

Another inspiration for ethnic minority girls in football is Derby County midfielder Kira Rai – the first South Asian woman to play for the Rams’ first team in the modern era. “She (Rai) is now known everywhere from Loughton to Los Angeles to Ludhiana,” said Trehan.

According to the latest data released as part of the FA’s Asian Inclusion Strategy, female participation in football within Asian communities was at 17.5% in 2023, an improvement, albeit a meagre one, of 2.1% from 2022. 

But, this doesn’t mask the fact that Asian-heritage players form part of the largest historically underrepresented group to play football. And Trehan doesn’t beat around the bush when referring to this problem.

“We need to see girls from diverse, ethnic backgrounds playing at the highest level in English football, and I desperately want to see girls who look like me playing

There’s a reason why girls who look like me are important – they are the largest single ethnic minority female group in this country and it’s clearly not a level playing field,” he said.

 

Sports media landscape for South Asians in the UK

Elsewhere, Trehan pointed to the fact that there isn’t much representation in the higher echelons of the sports media when it comes to ethnic minority women.

“Not too many black women making decisions, not too many brown women making decisions,” said Trehan when talking of the sports media in the United Kingdom.

But Sky Sports News has been a trailblazer and a champion of ethnic minorities in the field of sports media. Last October, Sky Sports won the ‘Diversity in Media Award’ at the 2023 Asian Media Awards ceremony, with the award being presented by Derby County’s Rai.

Trehan, while recounting his early days in English sports media, said: “When I first entered the industry, I’d walk into meetings with 20 white guys and two white women.”

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Sky Sports has been a champion of ethnic minorities in the sports media (Image source: Getty Images)

It would not be wrong to say that slowly but surely, the representation of ethnic minorities has improved, and Sky Sports is at the vanguard of this trend.

“Representation at Sky Sports News, generally speaking, is much better than the rest of the media. People have seen the growth of South Asians in football driven by Sky Sports,” remarked Trehan.

He believes that, more often than not, it is up to a person if they want to drive the movement for positive change. 

“If you want to see the change, sometimes you have to be the change,” he said.

 

Indian football: A long and arduous road ahead

While British South Asians and British Indians strive to carve a place in English football, back home in the subcontinent, Indian football limps towards a supposedly ‘grand vision’ for the future.

A country with 1.4 billion people, the world’s largest population, is ranked 121st in international men’s football; the women’s side is a saving grace for Indians – ranked 66th in the world by FIFA.

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India’s Sunil Chhetri is the fourth-highest international goalscorer in men’s football (Image source: Getty Images)

The Indian Super League, India’s top-tier men’s football league, run by Football Sports Development Limited (FSDL), a subsidiary of India’s Reliance Industries Limited (RIL), isn’t tangibly benefiting Indian football at club or international level.

At the Asian Cup this year in Qatar, India finished bottom of Group B with zero points – conceding six goals and scoring none, which meant the Blue Tigers exited with the joint-worst goal difference in the group stage.

In addition, they were only able to take one point from two matches, including a 2-1 home loss, against 151st-ranked Afghanistan in the FIFA World Cup qualifiers played in March this year.

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A wall mural during the  2022 AFC Women’s Asian Cup held in India (Image source: Getty Images)

Elsewhere, India’s top-flight women’s football league, the Indian Women’s League, isn’t in the media spotlight at all. There are no broadcasting partners, with matches streamed on the All India Football Federation’s (AIFF) YouTube channel. 

The Turkish Women’s Cup held in February this year, in which the Indian women finished runners-up, flew under the radar in India.

“You’ve got to have your heart in the game, and you’ve got to have the game in your heart. Unfortunately, that has not been the case historically for Indian football,” opined Trehan.

He raises an important question about the people who call the shots in Indian football, and where the beautiful game is headed in India if the set-up continues the way it is propped up now.

“Why are they there? What’s their ‘why’? Is their ‘why’ the same as your ‘why’ or the same as my ‘why’? Or is their ‘why’ something different?”

Author

  • Chaitanya Kohli

    Sports journalist with a keen interest in covering stories about European club football and the history of the beautiful game. Passionate Barcelona and Messi supporter. Perennially interested in bringing out inspiring stories about Indian football on the global stage.