Sporting Bengal: the FC tackling racism in football

Sporting Bengal United F.C play their football in Mile End Stadium, after being established in 1996 to ‘challenge the under-representation of Asians in football’. First team captain Rokib Choudhury and their manager Imrul Gazi speak out about what needs to be done to tackle racism in the game.

‘There was a match in the premier league my brother and I got to attend with the rest of our team when I was about 14,’ says Sporting Bengal’s captain, Rokib Choudhury, 25. ‘Our team, Hackney & Tower Hamlets under 14s, were invited to watch a match at this team’s stadium – I won’t say which one – and before the match started we all lined up to shake hands with the chairman of said club.’

‘Me and my brother stood next to each other – we were the only two Bangladeshi boys in the team. This guy makes his way down the line, shaking each person’s hand. Then he came to us two and he stopped, noticeably stepped back and just nodded at us. Then he continued shaking the rest of the team’s hands.’

This unsavoury incident was one of the first time that Choudhury experienced racism first hand. Having attended school in Bethnal Green which, like the borough it’s situated in, has a diverse selection of children, the would-be star footballer was taken aback by the chairman’s actions which seemed ‘bizarre – me and brother just looked at each other, “what the hell was that?” But you’re young so you don’t question these things.’ 

As Choudhury moved through the ranks of club level football, he’s witnessed many more acts of prejudice like this. Some subtle, some more overt – but enough to illustrate that racism is rife in the sport of football. 

‘You’ll get the usual stereotyping which is that people assume we don’t like football and would rather play cricket or be a doctor. Or that we smell – that got shouted a lot at us by white kids’ parents on match days.’ 

Choudhury emphasises the fact that it isn’t just at club level that racism is encountered. ‘There might only be two Asian players in the premier league. That’s out of nearly 250 top players – something there just isn’t right.’

Sporting Bengal United F.C. is a club that is trying to change all this, by pillaring itself on a mantra of inclusion and making sure that everyone gets a chance to play regardless of their skin colour, something which is sadly not the case in so many other local football clubs in the country.

‘If a local coach is picking a team, he’s going to want the black kid, or the white kid,’ says Gazi, Bengal’s talismanic off-pitch leader. ‘The Asian lad won’t get a look in, he’ll be too small, he’ll eat too much curry, he won’t be strong enough.’ 

Imrul Gazi, Sporting Bengal’s manager, has helped the club carve a reputation for itself as the place for young Asian footballers in our area to play at. Gazi, 46, and from Bangladeshi origin himself, has made it his mission to make sure that football teams represent the community that they play in. 

‘Imrul is a fantastic manager,’ says captain of the first team, Rokib Choudhury, 25. ‘He knows that it is so important to give Asian kids the chance to play serious football with good opposition. There aren’t that many other clubs in London that stand for the things that Sporting Bengal do.’ 

As a community based team, they focus on the nurturing of young Asian players looking to advance their careers. Sporting Bengal play in the Essex Senior League, one which is dominated by predominantly white teams, so the club’s role in providing an environment where the Asian community feels safe is vital.

‘Knowing what the club stands for, I am hesitant to move on,’ says Choudhury. ‘There have been more lucrative opportunities that have come calling, but I love this area and what Sporting Bengal represent in this community is really important.’ 

Choudhury had the chance to play for Bangladesh’s international team two years ago. ‘It would have been exciting and it would have been good money – but I’ve got a good thing going here and now at 25, I think my ship has sailed.’

Choudhury’s reluctance to seek fame and fortune abroad is testament to the proud mantra of Sporting Bengal – they are a team that plays for more than just points in a league; one which represents hope and a crucial part of the community in a borough as ethnically diverse as Tower Hamlets.

Sporting Bengal’s captain’s desire to stay here in the East End is also evident in the warmth in which he spoke of the community. ‘I’ve been here all my life. Roman Road is great – Cafe Fiesta is top for me,’ he says. 

‘I don’t hang out on the Roman too much now,’ he jokes. ‘But when I was a kid I was there all the time.’

Since he was a boy, Choudhury, 25, entertained visions of becoming a professional footballer. However he found it challenging trying to break through the ranks of club football and into the higher paid teams. 

‘I spent every spare second playing football. I’d rock up to school at half 8, play until time for lessons, then I wouldn’t have lunch – I’d be playing again.’ 

It is notoriously difficult for all young, could-be star footballers to overcome the intense physical and mental challenges needed to succeed. Although he won local awards for his skill at an early age, Choudhury’s path to success was made harder because of his Asian origin.

‘When I tried out for Leyton F.C. as a teenager, the coach there took my Mum aside and said to her, “can these Asian boys even play?” Looking back on it, it was an absolute joke that someone in his position would say such a thing’

Sporting Bengal were recently featured on a Sky Sports documentary, hosted by England footballer Micah Richards, on tackling racism in football. However, members of their camp were disheartened when the programme aired, seeing it as a ‘box ticking exercise for Sky’ which did not seek to provide solutions in an industry where racism is rife.

Instead of shedding light on what needs to be done to counter racism in football, such as rectify the fact there is no one of Asian origin on high level committees and boards in the premier league, the programme just regurgitated old stories of racism in football. 

‘When I watched that documentary, I felt that Sky really missed an opportunity to provide actual solutions to the problems of racism that we face pretty much every time we take to a football pitch,’ says Gazi. 

‘I get that they have an audience to cater for, but it felt like “Oh, here’s some people who have experienced racism, blah blah blah.” That was it. We already know all that. Surely a more helpful approach would be to identify solutions.’

‘I would have liked to see them address the problems which lie at the top of the pile. That’s the boardrooms and committees of the FA – which are made up of old, middle class white men.’

‘We need to have representation in the top football jobs in the country. It is disheartening for us Asians to see the black community seemingly in such dire straits. If they are struggling to gain representation in today’s era, then how long is it going to take for the Asian community to earn equality? We might be 40 or 50 years behind them.’

A potential solution that Choudhury puts forward to counter this prejudice seeping through the footballing world is to penalise teams that are associated with racist fans. ‘There’s racism at clubs like Chelsea and Tottenham. There needs to be points deducted if your fans are chanting slurs – as a fan, the only thing you care about is your team doing well, so maybe this could work.’ 

Gazi and his fearless team continue to make positive changes on a local level, but need change to be administered at the top for it to make a difference in their everyday lives. 

‘All these boys room clubs at the top can’t continue to exist,’ says Gazi. ‘In ten years time I’d like to see at least two or three Asians in the FA’s boardroom. If things don’t change, then in ten years we’ll probably be having the same conversation.’ 

‘We have some amazing young players coming through in the area,’ says Choudhury, hopeful for the future. ‘There’s this one lad called Ishaq who’s from Poplar – that kid’s going to be a superstar. Watch out for him.’ 

If you enjoyed this article, you may be interested in our article on Chaneen Saliee, campaigning for better representation of black mothers

Sporting Bengal FC at Mile End Leisure Centre with captain Rokib Chowdhury botttom centre

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