Asian Football Awards founder Rihal hopes Suliman or Dhanda will be a trailblazer.
Martin Downer, Special to Gulf News
London: British Asians will finally end their years of underrepresentation in the Premier League as soon as one player from the background makes it as a star, according to the founder of the Asian Football Awards (AFA).
Football agent Baljit Rihal - a second-generation British Asian himself - has taken a keen interest in rewarding those who are making an impact through the biennial AFA, but he is frustrated by the fact the UK's three million-strong South Asian community (4.9 per cent of the entire population) translated to only nine professionals in the top four divisions of English football at the end of last season.
The top Asian player award at the AFA has gone to Swansea City left-back Neil Taylor, who is of Indian extraction but has played international football for Wales, while the inaugural winner in 2012, Michael Chopra, is now playing for Alloa Athletic in the Scottish second tier.
There are no genuine contenders to rival Taylor at this stage, but Rihal has high hopes for a crop of young people who are starting to make an impact in Premier League academies and for England's age group teams.
Aston Villa defender Easah Suliman, who won the young player award at last month's 2015 AFA, became the first British Asian to captain any England side when he led the under-17s out for a match against the Faroe Islands in 2013. He is now in Villa's under-21 side even though he doesn't turn 18 until next month.
Another youngster to watch is Liverpool playmaker Yan Dhanda, who celebrated his 17th birthday earlier this month. The Birmingham-born attacking midfielder started out at the West Brom Academy, but was snapped up by the Reds and his since played for England's under-17s.
And then there are the Nabi brothers at West Brom - 21-year-old forward Adil, who has just returned to the club after scoring three times in the Indian Super League while on loan to Delhi Dynamos; midfielder Samir, 19, who is in the Baggies' under-21s side; and defensive midfielder Rahis, who is 16 and plays for the under-18s.
But, looking back at the last three years overall, Rihal told Gulf News : "The rate of change has been very slow. There seems to be more in the academy set-ups, but, apart from those guys, to be honest there's not much else.
"The proportion of Asians in the UK compared to the proportion of Asians in the Football League, they don't stack up. Things are changing, but very, very slowly and I think what everyone is waiting for is that star player. That's what everyone is yearning for. When that happens, it will hopefully be a catalyst for better things to come.
"I'm hopeful about Yan Dhanda and Easah Suliman with the fact they have represented the Young Lions. A player like Yan has been tipped by many people to be a special star and I'm quite hopeful he can be the one. He's probably the nearest to making it happen."
English Football Association chairman Greg Dyke admitted last year that attempts to bring more British Asians into football had failed, and so this year the organisation redoubled its efforts to engage with communities and discover more players with potential.
Rihal welcomed the move, but says more needs to be done. "The gamekeepers in English football, like the scouts who pick up the kids at a young age - I don't think they are looking in the Asian areas for kids who are at an age where they can be moulded into top players," he said.
"We're looking at the ages of six to eight, where in effect they need to show some talent and they will get picked up. There may be an element of inbuilt stereotypes in some of these scouts, who I think the vast majority of are white and over the age of about 40.
"A lot more can be done, so it's good the FA realised there was an issue a number of years ago, but I don't think they have made a concerted effort in tackling this. They recently introduced a plan to bring opportunities to communities, which is a good step. They are engaging with the community, setting up talent IDs in Asian areas and engaging with parents, but I don't think it's enough.
"I think they need to put more money into these schemes and also try to dispel some of the myths some people may have in their heads about diet and education. I've heard from some scouts that one of the reasons they didn't pick an Asian guy was that once he hit a certain age, say about 10, he's going to be pulled out from football to concentrate on his 11-plus [exams]."
Cricket in England has been far more successful in tapping into the British Asian talent pool, with the likes of Monty Panesar, Ravi Bopara, Adil Rashid and Moeen Ali playing for the country at the highest level. But Rihal, who also organises the Asian Cricket Awards, believes both cricket and football should be aiming for even greater levels of representation.
"I certainly hope [football could match cricket], but I think it's going to take quite a while," he said. "But while over 40 per cent of grass roots or recreational cricket in the UK is played by south Asians, I think only about 6 per cent of First Class and England international cricketers are from that region. While it's good to see representation from the likes of Monty Panesar, Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid, that figure should be far higher.
"Regarding football, there aren't figures out there about how many Asians compete at grass roots level, but it could be as high as 20 per cent. That tells you how many play, but that figure hasn't made it to the mainstream."
Notable young British Asian players at Premier League clubs
Easah Suliman - Position: Defender. Age: 17. Club: Aston Villa (Under-21s side). England: Under-17s and 18s
Yan Dhanda - Position: Attacking midfielder. Age: 17. Club: Liverpool (Under-18s side). England: Under-17s
Adil Nabi - Position: Forward. Age: 21. Club: West Brom (senior squad). England: Under-16s and 17s
Samir Nabi - Position: Central midfield. Age: 19. Club: West Brom (Under-21s side).
Rahis Nabi - Position: Defensive midfielder. Age: 16. Club: West Brom (Under-18s side).
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