Yan Dhanda proves his racist abusers wrong every time he steps onto a football pitch.
Dhanda is coming of age at Swansea City, thriving in a team chasing promotion to the Premier League.
With each accomplished performance, the 21-year-old sticks two fingers up at those who told him he would not make the professional game because of his British Asian background.
“When I was young I got a lot of racism, being Asian, probably because I was better than other kids,” Dhanda said.
“I got a lot of kids saying ‘you should be doing this job or should be doing that’, or ‘you’re not going to make it – you’re Asian’.
“There were obviously a lot worse words than that, but I am not going to say them.”
Dhanda, a former England Under-17 international who hails from the West Midlands, is one of only 10 British Asians among around 4,000 professional footballers in the United Kingdom.
He says the support of his mother Zoe, who is English, and father Jaz, who was born in England to Indian parents, was key in helping him deal with abuse he faced as a child.
“I think because I had so much self-belief and I knew I was better than everyone, I never let it affect me,” Dhanda said.
“But I can see it affecting other kids who don’t have the backing of their parents, or don’t have the self-belief I had or the relationship with their dad that I had.
“My dad would always say ‘you are better than them – don’t let it get to you and we’ll see where they are and where you are in the future’.”
Dhanda spent five years in Liverpool’s academy before moving to Swansea in search of first-team football in 2018.
He has had to be patient – he has made 30 appearances to date – but has turned a corner in recent weeks and now looks a player capable of nailing down a place in Swansea’s side.
Away from the training ground, Dhanda’s background comes up most days.
“On social media I get a lot of messages with people asking for advice,” he said.
“They want to become footballers, how do they do it, or they are proud of me and what I have done.
“Because I hear it so often, I am so aware of the lack of Asians in football. There’s no point sugar-coating it and saying it’s fine because it’s not.
“I am quite passionate about it, that things need to change and Asian kids need to get more opportunities and not get overlooked.”
Dhanda is delighted to be viewed as a role model.
“I am so proud of where I am from and my family’s background,” he added.
“I want to be the first person of Asian background to do great things.
“The lack of Asian players now – it can’t get any worse.
“But the number of Asian kids I know are playing football and are really good – they are going to be coming through in the next few years.”
Dhanda has long stood out as a gifted attacking midfielder, but has shown of late that he can cope with the physical demands of the Championship – and believes his progress could help others.
“I think a lot of Asian kids, because there are not a lot of professionals, are stereotyped as not strong enough,” Dhanda said.
“I think with the right coaching and with someone believing in them, anyone can do anything – no matter where you are from, what race you are and what background you are.
“Asian kids need the same opportunity as everyone else. They need to be given a chance.”
A long-standing problem “getting worse”
Research released today suggests there is plenty of work to be done before British Asians are properly represented in professional football.
A national poll of more than 2,000 people was commissioned by athlete management company Beyond Entertainment and the Football Supporters’ Association (FSA), while there was also an FSA survey of 500 football fans.
Among the findings of the surveys are:
- Less than a third of people believed the football industry was doing enough to ensure better representation of British Asians in the professional game. 29.1% believed the industry was doing enough.
- 13% felt racism towards British Asians was treated seriously enough by the football industry.
- Among those within the survey group who identified as football fans, 46% said the game needed to do more to improve British Asian representation.
- 64% of the FSA survey group felt the small number of British Asians playing professionally “shamed” football.
- Of those within that group who identified as being British Asian – around one-fifth – 71% said the game is better structured to support the development of white and black players than people from their community.
- A similar number from that group (72%) also said the British Asian community needs to do more to get its youngsters involved in the game.
- 72% of the FSA survey group would be proud to see a British Asian captain England, but just 15% feel that will happen by 2050.
British Asians make up 7% of the UK population. However, only 0.25% of professional footballers are British Asians.
“There are twice as many people of Asian heritage as people of black heritage in the UK yet there are 100 times more black pro players than Asian pro players. That’s a massive statistical anomaly,” said Kick It Out executive chair Sanjay Bhandari.
“It is clear that football has a long-standing problem getting British Asian players into the game and it is getting worse. Football needs to address this.”
‘One of the lads said something about being a terrorist’
Maziar Kouhyar, 23, says he was called a “terrorist” by a team-mate during his time at Walsall.
Kouhyar came to Britain aged one as a result of conflict in his native Afghanistan, for whom he has played international football.
He made 33 Walsall appearances before being released in 2019, and says there were “a lot of good experiences” at the club.
“But also there were a lot of racist things I experienced that made it a bit sour,” he said.
The worst incident was during a warm-up before a training session.
“One of the lads said something to me, something about being a terrorist,” Kouhyar said.
“The guy said it again so we ended up having a confrontation, pushing each other. The lads split it up.”
Kouhyar expected to “get called into the office” to discuss what happened. When nothing was said, he stayed quiet because he “didn’t want to be a troublemaker”.
Kouhyar, a midfielder, now works as a car salesman. He says “racist banter” was “thrown about” during his time in the professional game.
“For example on one occasion we went to Luton. It was a predominantly Asian area we were driving past – some of the lads would say ‘Maz, there’s your cousin’,” Kouhyar said.
“In football, it’s sad to say but that’s just the banter. If you don’t play along with it, you are not going to get along with the lads.
“Now I work at Toyota, there’s no racist banter. Why is it okay as part of football culture? It doesn’t make sense to me.”
In a statement, Walsall said: “As a club we have always prided ourselves on being all inclusive.
“Should Maz have raised any of his concerns at the time with the hierarchy here at the club, they would have been taken very seriously and dealt with swiftly.
“We have a zero tolerance policy on discrimination of any kind and would not condone any such behaviour. Even though he has now left the club we would of course like to deal with his concerns if he is able to provide specific detail.
“He was a valuable member of the club from the age 15 where he progressed through the youth ranks to earn a professional contract before sadly rupturing his anterior cruciate ligament in his knee in April 2019. Despite being out of contract in June, Maz completed his rehabilitation with the club before we parted ways in January 2020.
“Maz is one of a number of British Asian players who have followed a similar path with Walsall FC in recent years such as Netan Sansara, Malvind Benning and Jordon Sangha.”