The Asian Football List recognises individuals across five different categories for their contribution in the football industry. Sports Gazette spoke to three of the winners about their experiences as a minority and why representation matters.
When Sonia Randev decided to organise the event, she only had one mission in mind: to inspire a generation through sport. Her own inspiration came from the already-existing Football Black List, created by Leon Mann, and the idea was to celebrate role models in the Asian football community.
It is the first of its kind and the inaugural ceremony was hosted by ex-professional boxer and Sky Sport presenter, Spencer Fearon. The event raised money to support the sports academy Vallance FC with funding, in an effort to help get more kids off the streets. Everyone present at the awards could sense the importance of the night, especially the three winners.
Dharmesh Sheth is an experienced Sky Sports reporter, breaking news stories and interviewing some of the biggest names in football. But for him, winning was as new as the event itself.
“I’ve never won anything before! It was a pleasant surprise when I got the email about a special recognition award. It actually made me feel a bit old but then I realised I’ve been at Sky for 20 years now, so getting something like this is very welcome,” he said.
When Sky Sports journalist Dev Trehan found out he won the Media award, he felt humbled, if not a bit surreal.
“It’s really strange because I’m normally at events like this interviewing people who pick up awards, and suddenly it’s my turn. But to be recognised by your community is a wonderful feeling.”
“Football journalism is a very hard graft. Nothing comes easy in this business and you’ve got to put a lot in to get a little bit out, but it’s very reassuring to know that people are listening and seeing what you’re doing,” he added.
Kira Johal received the Commercial, Admin and Marketing award for her work with the FA as the personal assistant to the Director of Football Participation and Development. Like the two journalists, it was a proud moment for her too.
“As a female Asian footballer, it’s an honour to win it. The fact that awards like these exist is a huge step in the right direction because the sport is very diverse, and there are Asians in football. We just need to promote them more,” she said.
Sheth also stressed the importance of having Asian awards that celebrate the whole football industry, and not just the people on the pitch.
“I’m often asked why it is needed and on one hand, they’ve got a point, but on the other hand, you’ve got to shine a light on how many of us are actually involved in the industry.
“It’s mainly for the Asians who aspire to become footballers but realise it might not happen for them. A Football List like this one ,and the Asian Football Awards, celebrating grassroots coaches, chief executives, media and the medical industry… It will tell them there are so many other opportunities within the sport that they don’t have to limit themselves.”
When asked if they felt any added pressure to do a better job because they represent a minority, the three of them agreed that was not the case.
“I don’t think it’s the worst attitude to have because it’s only gonna make you work harder, but I’ve never been under that pressure. The only pressure I feel is actually doing my job and doing it properly,” said Sheth.
Trehan added: “I certainly think there’s a lot of Asian journalists who feel that way, but I personally don’t. My mission is slightly different; I want to improve the coverage of Asians in sport.
“I’m just an Asian kid who likes to fight for Asian people. I’m fortunate to work in sports media, and I’ve got the opportunity to bring stories about Asian people to life.”
Trehan in particular, wants to shine a light on Asians in football to help get rid of the stereotypes about what they can or cannot do.
“People think we aren’t suitable for football for whatever reason. It happened to me the other day when I popped into the makeup room at Sky Sports News.
“I was looking for a guest, and one of the ladies asked me if I was here to do the cricket. I just looked at her and went: “actually, I work here,” he said with a sigh.
It might not have happened in football for Kira Johal, but growing up in a small town, she still experienced discrimination in other aspects of her life. As a result, she used sport as a coping mechanism.
“It’s very dear to my heart, because I was quite shy in school and didn’t like to confront people, but I was able to use football to get me out of hard times. It also helped me find myself and my personality.
“I was very fortunate to grow up in a family that was very supportive of my football background and encourage me to play football,” she explained.
Not everyone was that lucky, as Trehan received no support at home after he told his family he wanted to be a sports journalist.
“It’s very difficult to get past your family. It was hard enough for me to tell them that, but I can’t even imagine what it’s like for the kids who want to play sports professionally.
“It not as big of a problem now as was before, because most of us are born in this country where football and sport is very much part of our culture,” he continued.
“But Asian parents will never lose the academic route, and I completely understand that, because if you look at the statistics, I think less than 1% of young players in the academies actually make it. That’s counting every single community, white, brown and black kids alike.”
Representation in mainstream media matters because it can impact lives, to the extent where it helps shape the way people view the world and see themselves.
Sheth said: “We all need to relate to someone. Say the 10-year-old me, wanted to become a sports presenter or football reporter, it’s very difficult when I look at the screen now because the youngsters want to see somebody that looks like them on the screen.
“And if they don’t, sometimes they’ll think there’s a barrier there that they can’t get in. But your color or race should never deter you from going into something.”
Asians may be conspicuous in their absence especially in the Premier League, but Trehan does not necessarily believe it’s all doom and gloom.
“Last Saturday, we saw Hamza Choudhury play at Wembley for Leicester City so that was a great moment for Asians in football.
“Jarmail Singh was also refereeing in the National League conference play-off final that Sunday, so suddenly we had two Asians running out at Wembley on the same weekend,” he said proudly.
Sheth is also slowly sensing a small shift in the narrative.
“I think gradually the barriers are being broken down. Whenever you put the TV on or listen to the radio, there are more people from an ethnic background talking football. And things like this [the Asian Football List] always help because it tells people that there are opportunities, jobs and people like you in the industry,” he said.
Trehan added: “There is no doubt Asian kids need a role model at the very highest end of the game, there’s a lot of talk about Yan Dhanda at the moment at Liverpool but it looks like he’s going to Swansea now [relegated to the Championship].
“But the growth of the Indian Super League also normalises it, and helps Asian parents understand that football can be a viable pathway for their kids. But of course, we all dream of that one player who is going to hit the heights and make it in the Premier League.”
If people like Sonia Randev continue to organise events such as the Asian Football List, it won’t take too long before we see more Asians in the Premier League. Who knows? At this rate, the South-Asian community might even find their own Mo Salah.
Feature image credit: Gurpreet Mudhar