In recognition of Britain's milieu of diaspora sports teams, VICE Sports has gone in search of the clubs representing minority communities in Britain. You can read the rest of our diaspora series here.
In the aftermath of the Partition of India in 1947, the Punjab was a difficult place to live. Divided almost clean in half by the Radcliffe Line – the newly demarcated border between the independent nations of India and Pakistan – the region was heavily affected by the massive upheaval and intercommunal strife which resulted from the schism of the former British Raj. With Muslims and Hindus displaced on both sides of the border, furious violence erupted between the two religious majorities, with the Partition resulting in the dispersal of millions of refugees and hundreds of thousands of deaths at the lowest estimates. The religious minorities of the Punjab were also caught up in the chaos, not least the many Sikh communities living in the fertile river plains and foothills of the region.
With much resultant hardship and instability, the enormous turmoil in the Punjab was one of the reasons that, come the fifties, many Sikhs sought to emigrate from their ancestral heartlands. Their most obvious destination was Britain, with the centuries-long British colonial administration of India leaving cultural and linguistic ties behind. While the British empire had committed intermittent acts of brutality in the Punjab – the Amritsar massacre being the most famous – there were manpower shortages in several key British industries, and so many Sikhs took the leap regardless. Thousands arrived in England from the fifties onwards and settled, among other places, in London, Birmingham and West Yorkshire. Then there were those who gravitated to a slightly less hectic part of the country, the Thameside town of Gravesend in north-west Kent.
It was there that, in 1965, a dozen or so Punjabi students formed Guru Nanak FC. Taking their name from the founder of Sikhism and the first of the 10 Sikh gurus, the club was an amateur outfit whose first aim was to join a local league. They were frustrated for several years by endemic racism from league officials and faced many obstacles in their quest for recognition, this at a time when many Sikhs eschewed their usual dress and grooming habits so as not to incur further discrimination in the workplace. Eventually, in the late sixties, the Gravesend Football League accepted Guru Nanak's application for membership, and from there they went from strength to strength.
With the burgeoning Sikh community in Gravesend raising enough money to finance a Gurdwara in 1969, Guru Nanak struck up a partnership with the temple and arranged sponsorship and funding. While they still faced racism on the pitch from opponents and referees, they continued to improve, won a handful of grassroots cups and soon had to deal with demand for places by establishing a reserve team. By the early seventies they were one of the first clubs to start running and hosting Asian Tournaments, giving them serious cachet as a diaspora football team and a certain prominence among other Asian sides. By the mid seventies, the team also featured several non-Asian players, and the club gradually developed an inclusive position in regards to ethnicity, race and creed.
Now, Guru Nanak are one of the best established diaspora clubs in the country, and describe themselves as a "multicultural football club." They have over a dozen youth teams and several senior sides, as well as being one of the first clubs of Asian heritage to field a women's team. They have an entirely open selection policy, even as their pitches lie in the shadow of the Guru Nanak Darbar Gurdwara Temple, a reminder of the club's heritage and links to Gravesend's Sikh community. The men's senior team spent the 2016-17 season in the Kent County Premier Division, though they finished bottom of the league after a tumultuous campaign and now face the prospect of having to strengthen and rebuild.
Someone who knows all about the inner workings of the club is Manjit Atwal, Guru Nanak's general secretary. "Having originated as a group of young Asian lads who were looking to play regular football, the club is now a multicultural, diverse entity and essentially an ambassador, not only for our local league but also across the county," Manjit tells VICE Sports. "We also carry the flag on a national level and we are involved in various cup tournaments, mostly in Asian football." Guru Nanak have worked with the FA, Kick It Out and other anti-racism initiatives to ensure greater inclusion for Asian players, though Manjit is keen to stress that the club has fostered an environment which is welcoming for everyone. "We don't preach or promote Sikhism to any of our members" he says. "Anyone is free to join and we have a multi-faith set-up, whether that's at a playing level or among the club's officers and coaches.
"Our doors are open, and essentially what we want to do is – from within the mainstream – create opportunities for the Asian community and give the children in our youth teams something to aspire to and look forward to," Majit goes on. "We want to see them realise what they can achieve physically, mentally and educationally; we want to give them an incentive to look after their bodies, eat healthily and so on, and all of that goes all the way up to the senior team. We're also proud to be one of the first ethnic clubs, particularly from an Asian background and a predominantly Sikh cultural background, to introduce a ladies section within the club. The club has grown immensely from where it started just over 50 years ago."
Considering that Guru Nanak encountered so much prejudice in their early history, it's interesting that – rather than become more insular – the club have embraced a philosophy of inclusivity. While it might have been considered a natural reaction to shun non-Asian competition and the discrimination they often encountered there, the club has instead done the precise opposite and welcomed people of other backgrounds as well. Asked whether changing attitudes in Britain over the last few decades have made it easier to adopt a multicultural outlook, Manjit says: "It has certainly contributed. It's also something to do with the fact that we originally only fielded senior teams, but as time went on we felt that the future lay with having a conveyor belt of youth players. With the diversity in Gravesend, we wanted to capture and introduce the best of that in our teams. Now we like to think we're a beacon on a national level in terms of promoting diversity and multiculturalism. The way we run the club is that there's no 'black player', 'white player' or 'Asian player', there are just good and bad players."
In terms of discrimination and racism on matchday, Manjit admits that Guru Nanak still have to deal with incidents owing to their religious and ethnic heritage. "If there's ever a problem, we are bold enough to say: 'No, that isn't acceptable,'" he says. "Racism does still rear its head now and then, and it will take more time to solve. Some may deem it to be more acceptable at a senior level, but when there are children involved and it emanates from parents then that's seriously unfortunate, and troubling in terms of people who are meant to be role models. So racism is still there, I'm not going to say that it isn't, but it's certainly not as harsh or exposed as it used to be."
When it comes to Guru Nanak's ambitions as a club, they seem to share a common aspiration with many other Asian-heritage teams. Manjit says that he would like to see Asians better represented in professional football, and to see greater inclusion at a higher level. "We have to ask: why haven't we got a sufficient number of Asians playing football? Is it a cultural thing? Is there a glass ceiling of sorts, where some clubs feel that if they have a black player, a white player and an Asian player, then the Asian player would be third choice? We've tried to challenge various stereotypes to do with Asians not being tall enough or physically strong enough… there's a number of things at play here. From a cultural perspective, education and business are often top of the tree in Asian societies and sport may not be. Then again, that has been challenged through India's emergence in the cricket world, which has really changed people's focus. Here in the UK we are now into the third and fourth generation of Asian communities, people now seem to have different priorities and more are looking at embracing sport as a potential career."
While many will hope to see better representation of Asian players across the top few tiers of English football in the near future, Asian communities are strongly represented at a grassroots level. Guru Nanak FC have been a significant part of that for the last half a century, and what started out as a group of Punjabi students looking for a kickabout in a daunting new country has become a club which welcomes all newcomers, regardless of their background. All being well, they will continue to do so for many more years.