Baljit Rihal – Fighting for Asian Participation in Football


Yet another outstanding OBV graduate, Baljit Rihal talks about his work to increase the number of Asian players and spectators in the great game of football.

Baljit Rihal has spent the last few years concentrating all efforts on one goal – to increase awareness of Asian players in football, as well as to address the issues which prevent them from reaching professional football. An avid football fan himself, he was raised in Southall, West London where his passion for Chelsea FC soon became apparent.

He holds a Masters degree in IT, an undergraduate degree in Economics as well as having over 10 years corporate IT experience.

He first became aware of the underrepresentation of the Asian community in the sport after working with Operation Black Vote in our Magistrates Shadowing Scheme:

Involvement with Operation Black Vote definitely helped to increase awareness for me. The Scheme made me think about what is going in particular industries such as football, and what FA and other groups are doing to make them more representative.

This passion to create change has resulted in Rihal becoming Director to as well as football agent with Inventive Sports. Inventive Sports is a sports consultancy firm, co-founded by Rihal in 2009 that seeks to nuture, promote and represent new footballing talent, with particular focus on addressing the lack of Asian representation in many areas of the football industry., encouraging greater social-inclusion in the process. The organisation’s actions up to this point have been focused upon increasing participation for disadvantaged groups, while in his personal capacity as an agent, Rihal has represented Asian players in their quest to progress into professional football.

The job role is challenging indeed, considering the mentoring aspect of the services Rihal offers to young Asian players. In terms of advising clients on the reality of lack of big Asian players in British sports, Rihal says:

I always make sure I don’t say there are barriers to achievement for Asian footballers, as that risks creating a ready-made excuse if these young kids don’t make it. I think it is important that while we deal with discrimination whenever it is encountered, it is best that footballers are given the support necessary to be given a chance to enter the professional game.

As far as Rihal is concerned, there are a number of actual issues which prevent Asians from engaging in football at the professional level as well as the football community as a whole:

I think a combination of pressure from family to pursue other careers and stereotyping by the gatekeepers to professional football has an effect. Lazy stereotypes surrounding diet and physical frame may put scouts off from searching for Asian talent. Scouts are also unlikely to look at Asian-only Leagues that are connected to the Mosque or Gurdwara where players may be more comfortable next to their own.

To counter such barriers to the Asian community Rihal has undertaken a few initiatives. The most obvious is the glamorous and eagerly anticipated annual event that is the Asian Football Awards; where the prominent figures of the football fraternity gather to celebrate the work of young Asian professionals within football. Guests for the event held in January this year included David Bernstein (FA Chairman), Paul Elliot, Graeme LeSaux, Mihir Bose, Piara Powar, director Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham) and winners Michael Chopra and Manish Bhasin.

Rihal believes such a high-profile event can help to highlight the problem Asian players are having infiltrating the upper hierarchy of British football; by showing Asians in the UK and further afield that people who look like them are achieving in the sport, the awards can hopefully inspire more Asians to consider working in the football industry.

Additionally, Rihal believes that it is possible to work on a day-to-day basis towards this goal. In keeping with his desire to increase the visibility of the Asian community in public life, Rihal also uses his time serving society as a magistrate. Back to football, he contributed to the Inventive Sports-supported launch of the Player Development Centre, where Premier League coaches teach and mentor young Asian players and prospective coaches. Based in Hayes, West London, the Player Development Centre works with Queen’s Park Rangers to teach skills and techniques to Asian pupils, aiding progression into academies and training Asian coaches in the process.

In fact, there have already been some success stories in the three years in which Inventive Sports have been active, with the links cultivated with both QPR and Chelsea leading to Asians receiving academy trials at the Premier League clubs. The more Inventive Sports continues to open pathways for Asians hoping to enter the football industry, the more that success stories will materialize as a matter of course.

Rihal himself has enjoyed the taste of popularity when he was invited to Downing Street last Vaisakhi (a Sikh celebration) by the Prime Minister. It was an opportunity to meet those with influence over the distribution of public funds towards sport, and put his point of view and convictions across. Rihal says:

I had a very brief interaction with the Prime Minister, who said that he had heard of the Asian Football Awards and the under-representation of Asians in football is something that needs addressing.

Exposing the problem that the Asian community faces regards football in this way is much more preferable to the exposure given to racial discrimination in sport by the media when a scandal breaks out. The recent John Terry racism fiasco comes to mind; which prompted public debate as to whether football was immune to the legal system’s attempts to bring justice when racial abuse does occur. Rihal adds:

there is still work to be done, on and off the pitch. Racism is a broad issue meaning that working with those of African, African-Caribbean and Chinese backgrounds through organisations like Kick it Out is important, we encourage anyone who comes to us having experienced racism in the stands to go through official channels and bodies like Kick it Out and The FA as it is co-operation that is needed to address the issue.

Whilst such scandals have marred football’s reputation as open to all sections of society, Rihal takes great efforts to make the point that the great game is still worth venturing into for Asian sportspersons. In fact, to promote a greater union between football and the Asian community Rihal has persuaded Jazzy B, one of the biggest current stars of Bhangra music, to join the cause.

The hugely popular Bhangra star, with a following which spreads from South Asia and beyond, has teamed up with Inventive Sports to promote the interaction of Asian football fans and Liverpool FC. This is part of a wider engagement for Inventive Sports, who not only engaging directly with clubs in England such as QPR, Chelsea and Liverpool, but also seeks to spread its horizons to the Indian Subcontinent, tapping into football’s growing popularity there to get more children playing a low-cost sport. It seems as if Asian influence in football can continue to grow with Inventive Sports’ help, reaching outside the UK in the process.

Parmila Kumari and Robert Austin