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Good Game: Sporting Bengal

Sporting Bengal have continued to break down barriers for Tower Hamlets’ South Asian ballers for the last 25 years.

‘Good Game’ is a new content series in partnership with Versus and PUMA, giving a platform to some of the most important and influential grassroots collectives in London’s football communities. We’re here to showcase some of the beautiful game’s most dedicated ballers and local heroes. We’re here to platform the impact these incredible organisations are having on their boroughs, on and off the pitch. Next up, Sporting Bengal gaffer Imrul Gazi tells us how he has helped the club become a flagship for the Bangladeshi community and allow aspiring players in Tower Hamlets to kick ball at a higher level.

Sporting Bengal have been a pillar of the Tower Hamlets community from day one. Inspired by a football tour of Bangladesh back in 1996, the club was built on the premise of providing high quality football to young South Asians in the East London area – with the club having delivered on their mission statement for over two decades. 

Celebrating their 25th anniversary this year, Sporting Bengal have supported thousands of players from U10s all the way up to the First Team in their rapid rise up the ranks. In eight years the team rose from amateur Sunday league football to semi-professional football, with the first team now playing in the Essex Senior League – STEP 5 level football.

A semi-pro club with elite-level attitude, we caught up with Sporting Bengal boss Imrul Gazi to talk about his journey from player to manager, some of his greatest achievements with the club and why representation matters in the beautiful game. 

VERSUS: You’ve been with Sporting Bengal for a number of years now. What made you want to get involved with the club?

Imrul Gazi: The reputation of the club is what drew me to it initially. As someone who’s been a follower of Asian football for a very long time, I knew of Sporting Bengal when I was back in Bradford playing amateur level football. When I moved to London, I knew I wanted to get involved with the club… but I never thought I was going to end up managing them!

I’ve worked with the first-team for roughly six years, but I’ve been involved with the club for over a decade now. I started as a youth coach with the Under-10s, had that team for about four seasons – we were relatively successful – and then I got involved as a Club Secretary with Anwar Uddin who managed the team from 2014-2015. 

I wanted to learn as much as possible about Sporting Bengal and saw coaching the U10s and being Club Secretary as stepping stones towards working in men’s football. With Anwar – one of the first Bangladeshi footballers in England who played for Dagenham and Redbridge, Barnet and Bristol – it was an opportunity for me to learn from him too.

How have you found working your way up the ranks at the club? 

My next steps saw me get involved with the first-team – that opened my eyes to a different level of football, and what professionalism in the game looked like. The following season, I was appointed First Team Coach after Anwar went on to pursue new opportunities. 

When I moved here at 35, I managed to get in 30 appearances for Sporting Bengal as a veteran before getting involved with the academy. It was important for me to give back to a club that had given me so much, and had embraced me when I first arrived all those years ago. At the time my son was 7, so I could spend time with him too as his coach. 

His team were the first academy team, he’s 19 now and plays for the club still. He epitomises what Sporting Bengal is all about: giving kids at a decent footballing level from our communities in Tower Hamlets opportunities to play. At Sporting Bengal, it doesn’t really matter if you’re Bangladeshi, Black or White – the main thing is that you live in Tower Hamlets. 

Most of our kids come from challenging backgrounds where there might be trouble going on at home or school. They might also be struggling financially, and it’s vital the club represents all our community, regardless of ethnicity, and offers support through football. 

Why do you do what you do?

When the project started in 1996, the vision was to give footballers – especially young players in the East London area – the opportunities to compete in the mainstream. 

Sporting Bengal was created by a group of Bangladeshi lads in Mile End, Tower Hamlets, to try and be competitive in their community. The team got their best players together and decided to do a football tour of Bangladesh where they played against pro clubs and against the Bangladesh U21 team. They called their team Sporting Bengal, and when they returned to England, they decided to keep the name and ended up entering into a competitive league. 

Sporting Bengal became a flagship for the Bangladeshi community in Tower Hamlets, and East London as a whole. It attracted some of the best footballers from our community, which is why the club made the decision to step it up another notch and become a semi-professional club. Fortunately for us, we have Mile End stadium right on our doorstep – and through a lot of lobbying, the stadium became our home ground. 

We’ve played in the Essex Senior League for the last ten years or so and we’ve grown into a team that’s now highly respected. That’s something I always envisioned for the club. We’re finishing mid-table consistently; we’re not a walkover, we’re not just a token gesture and we’ve earned the respect to be where we are. Mile End has become a bit of a fortress, teams don’t want to come here because they know there’s going to be a challenging game waiting for them. It’s what I’ve always wanted for the club. 

Why does representation, especially in football, matter? 

We need role models in anything we do in life, growing up we all have our idols and as an Asian kid growing up, and I can speak for my children and the kids I coach, how many Asian footballers do you see out there? Like responds to like, and there’s not enough representation out there currently. 

If I’ve got a 10-year-old who supports Liverpool, Arsenal or Chelsea for example, there aren’t any players who look like them, so automatically as a 10-year-old you’re thinking, do I belong there? Straightaway you’re potentially walking into an environment that’s alien and you start to ask yourself, do I really have what it takes to take my football to the next level? Am I going to be accepted? Those are just a few of the barriers Asian footballers have to contend with.

I’m a British Bangladeshi Muslim for example, and within ‘that’ there’s so many connotations; I’m brown skinned, I’m Muslim, most Asian players in my men’s team will have beards. We are everything that the media represents as wrong. When we are going into places, especially counties like Essex, and my management staff are all Brown men with beards, instantly we find ourselves coming up against a wall. Sporting Bengal allows us to challenge and break down these perceptions, which is why we can never stop doing what we do as a club, and that’s representing our community and giving youngsters a chance. 

We work with so many young players who have already been to academies, and they’ve been turned away without any reason. And I know they were good enough, so it begs the question ‘why’? It’s why we teach our players, especially young players, about the value of non-league football because outside the pro-game there are plenty of other opportunities as long as you have the right attitude and you commit to Sporting Bengal. 

It’s our 25th anniversary this year, and for that reason alone it’s really important that we revisit what Sporting Bengal’s all about. Tower Hamlets has changed a lot in the last two decades, there’s more diversity in the borough now than ever. Sporting Bengal needs to adapt because we represent Tower Hamlets.

I mentioned breaking down perceptions earlier, we do the same but for the borough as a whole. People who aren’t from East London don’t always understand our demographics. We are a culturally diverse community, I will never stop encouraging Asians, and people from less fortunate backgrounds, to pursue opportunities to better themselves through football. That’s why I’m in the game. 

What changes need to be made in football, so that future ballers from South Asian communities feel ‘seen’? 

There is an existing undercurrent in the game we feel as Asian coaches and players that we’re not good enough, and there are still damaging stereotypes that exist around Asians and sport, “they don’t play football, they play cricket” for example. But you can’t tell me Asians don’t play football and they’re not good enough to play at the very top. 

I was fortunate enough to speak with Gareth Southgate recently and when he was asked why we don’t have any Asian players representing England, he was very open and honest about the fact he didn’t know why. 

If the England Manager – someone who’s been involved in professional football for years and someone who is a huge advocate for standing up for what you believe in – doesn’t know why we don’t have any Asian footballers playing for England, it shows how much of a big problem we have in the game. 

How much of a milestone moment do you think it was seeing a player like Hamza Choudhury lift the FA Cup last month?

Massive! Hamza Choudhury has come through the ranks and some people might sit there and say: “yeah, but he’s mixed heritage he’s not Bangladeshi”. His mother is Bangladeshi, and Choudhury is a very proud British Bangladeshi. For him to win the FA Cup and be the first player from a Bangladeshi background to win it was huge for Sporting Bengal. I was there at the Cup Final and I was so proud. Hopefully it’s just the start!

How important is it to see players like Wesley Fofana stopping play – for a Premier League team like Leicester – to break their fast during Ramadan? 

For a British Muslim coach who is involved in the game, especially at grassroots and non-league levels, when I saw it I thought we’re witnessing evolution in the game. It made me feel at ease with the game I love. 

Leicester City are a prime example of a well run football club, and I can think of so many who could learn so much from them in particular. Brendan Rogers is an unbelievable manager and human being because he understood what Fofana was doing, and that it was his right to do what he did because of his faith. 

The PFA hosted the first Asian Inclusion Mentoring Scheme (AIMS) last week in Wembley. How integral are these events in breaking down barriers for young players?

Very! We all need role models and to have players like Anwar Uddin, Neil Taylor and Yan Dhanda be involved, to have their stories be heard, and to be able to go to someone who might have experienced what you’re going through is vital for young players especially. 

We need to have these schemes to bridge the gap between all levels of football, there needs to be an integrated approach. Sometimes you can’t help but feel some changes are a ‘tick-box’ approach. You hear quite a lot, “changes need to be made at boardroom level” and they do, absolutely, but there needs to be a ‘stop-gap’ for example between grassroots and international football, and that’s where clubs like Sporting Bengal come in. 

We need more people to reach out to clubs like ours! And in order to do that we need The FA and The PFA to reach out to us. One of the largest, densely populated Asian communities in the country and we’ve not heard anything from them. They’re missing a trick and it begs the question, when is it going to happen? 

What’s been one of your proudest moments as Head Coach of Sporting Bengal? What’s on the horizon for the club?

Firstly, the day I got the job. I was literally living the dream. A lad from Bradford, who grew up playing football, my 9-5 job is based in the pharmaceutical industry but my passion is football. So when I got the job as First Team Coach, it was a dream come true. Secondly, reaching the qualifying round of The FA Cup in my first season. That’s my biggest achievement to date. 

Getting more young Asian players involved in football, inspiring the next generation. The kids we had come in ten years ago in the U10s team, who are now 19/20 and still playing with us. How do we get them playing more regularly for Sporting Bengal, and how do we step them up a level? How do we get more U10s to fill our team and start the cycle again? The Sporting Bengal Academy now has a big part to play within the community of Tower Hamlets. 

The role fashion plays in football – at all levels – is bigger than ever. What is your go-to game-day fit? 

I’m all about the tracksuit, and I love my baseball caps. I am known for my caps, I don’t go to football without one. I’m very conscious of what I’m wearing, I want everything to match so there’s a lot of colour coordination; black tracksuit, black cap for example. I’m pretty old school, white or black trainers, nothing else. My football boots are PUMA Kings. ‘86 World Cup was my first proper tournament and Maradona wore PUMA Kings, so it’s always been those boots for me. 

This past year has been tough for everyone, but working with semi-professional athletes must have posed its own problems. How did Sporting Bengal get through lockdown?

More so than ever! My son is of that generation so I’ve seen it first hand. Playing FIFA is all I ever saw him do! He’s just completed his first year at Uni, and he was staying up until crazy hours playing online with friends. I think gaming has got that generation through the pandemic, whereas Netflix got me through it! 

What words of wisdom would you give to any young Bengali players and coaches wanting to play or work in football?

Don’t give up on your dreams. If you’re a young aspiring footballer, it’s all about attitude and your desire to want to succeed. You’re going to get knockbacks, you only learn from your failures. Life is not easy, but don’t ever give up. And have some pride in yourself – just because you’re Brown, Bangladeshi or Muslim, don’t let the media fill your head with negatives. Be proud of who you are, be proud that you’re representing and you’re willing to go out there and challenge the stereotypes. 

How are you rating your chances of winning the Pro-Clubs tournament? Have you already picked your team?

I think we’ve got a chance! We’ve got a lot of kids who think they’re good at playing Fifa anyway! 

Will you be playing?

No way! It’s not for me but I know a lot of the boys are obsessed with FIFA. I am looking forward to finding out about it a bit more though, and I’ll give it a good go if I need to.

Sporting Bengal will compete in the first size? x PUMA Pro Clubs cup goes down on June 30. To reserve your team’s spot and compete against some of the biggest names in football and eSports culture, click here.

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