Parallel Lives: Luciano Narsingh and the Riddle of English Football

As this summer’s European Championships and London 2012 gently fade into that often nebulous region known as the past, this week yielded an abrupt reminder of the passage of time: the full-on commencement of the European zone qualification process for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. Away from the ostensibly major developments on the pitch – a record victory for Bosnia and Herzegovina, a stunning win in Israel for Fabio Capello’s Russian charges and England dropping two potentially vital points at home to a proficient Ukraine – we spotted something of perhaps even greater cultural significance: the presence in the Holland team of one Luciano Narsingh.

Narsingh, a sprightly 21-year-old winger on the roster of Eindhoven’s Philips-created PSV, caught the eye in Holland’s slightly fortunate 2-0 open match triumph over Turkey, and not merely for his neatly-taken 93rd minute strike which settled the contest: as his surname would suggest, Narsingh is partly of Indian descent. His graduation to the Dutch senior national team is part of a noticeable trend: South Asian-origin players representing European countries at the very highest level. In recent years, both France (through part-time filmmaker and poker supremo Vikash Dhorasoo) and Norway (via Feyenoord’s metronomically-consistent holding midfielder Harmeet Singh) have capped players with Indian backgrounds.

The significance of this lies in the fact that France, Norway and Holland all have numerically small South Asian communities; moreover, the aspirations of Indian immigrants (like many other Asian immigrants overseas) have not usually extended to a career in an historically working-class sport such as football. Yet the sporting systems within these countries were meritocratic enough to promote and reward talented players whose parents hail from the Indian subcontinent.

Meanwhile, England – a country where, in 2009, South Asians made up no less than 6.0% of the entire population, with people of this background constituting far higher proportions of denizens in the major conurbations where many larger football clubs are based – seem as far away from capping a player from this background as ever, a fact that in the context of the massive internationalisation of English football that has taken place over the past twenty years forces one to ask some uncomfortable questions about the true extent of tolerance and diversity within the English game and maybe even English society as a whole.

Are there certain domains which will simply never be open to those of the ‘wrong’ background? Does the remarkable relative lack of overt racism or extreme-right populism in British politics disguise a more insidious generalised prejudice whereby acceptance of certain groups is strictly subject to context? And despite the marketing of England – and in particular, London – as globalised, open and tolerant entities, are its citizens still finding ways to live parallel lives?

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