I was talking to a Swedish friend the other day and our conversation turned to the differences between the ways that minorities in the two countries choose to promote their interests. This came back to me on Saturday when the Swedish second division football team Syrianska secured promotion to the Swedish Premier League. Syrianska is a club whose membership is made up from Aramean immigrants arriving from Syria, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq. The club is based in Södertälje, 30 miles or so from Stockholm, but has a fan base around the world. A little later the same day I listened to a news article on the BBC that talked about the surprising lack of British Asian players active in professional football in the UK, despite the rapid growth in the popularity of the sport among spectators and viewers from across the UK’s many diverse communities. Why, the article asked, were the communities not integrating on the sports field?
Lying at the heart of all this is a question of identity. And identity and sporting affiliation can be closely linked. As a life-long Liverpool supporter I should be the first to recognise this. I’ve talked football with people from Kathmandu to Kuala Lumpur and sat with Liverpool supporters watching the Reds in Singapore and San Sebastian. And, as any supporter knows, you don’t need a common language to feel closeness to your fellow supporters when the ball hits the back of the net. Sport can provide a sense of connection that transcends geography. Being a Liverpool supporter is part of my identity and one I share with millions around the world.
Sport can do this, but it’s only a very small part of the equation. Feeling secure in your identity, in where you belong, is not just a question of sport. And it would be trite to draw facile conclusions from the Syrianska and the Liverpool examples. But sport is an important indicator of integration and identity, which is why we ask the question about British Asians and football. This puts me in mind of my old cricket team in England which included, among others, two Indian IT engineers, a teacher from Australia, a South African student and a business manager from Pakistan. The conversations around the table after the match were a sparkling array of stories from our odd experiences around the world but I remember the very particular thrill we all felt when one of our number said, “You know, being in this team with you guys makes me really feel like I’m at home here”. A question of sport?