Inshallah United: ‘If only the Class of 92 had a Nassar Butt instead of Nicky’ | Soccer
I sometimes wonder what it would have been like to have an Asian football role model growing up. How would that feel? How amazing would it be? To have a brown footballer to look up to and maybe even aspire to emulate. When the hype started around Manchester United’s Class of 92 – winning the FA Youth Cup against Crystal Palace in 1992; losing in the final against Leeds in 1993; one by one making a name for themselves in the first team – I felt a huge sense of pride and emotional investment in them. Of course there tends to be a collective soft spot among fans for players who’ve graduated through the academy, but for me it wasn’t really that.
They were older than me, so I wasn’t going easy on the kids. For me it was more that a lot of them were local. I’d read all about the Busby Babes in the books I’d borrowed from the library and bought for a pittance at jumble sales. I knew that a fair few of them were local lads too. Then with the Class of 92 there was this sudden arrival of similarly local lads in the first team. Paul Scholes was born in Salford; Nicky Butt was from Gorton; and Phil and Gary Neville were from Bury, where I went to school. Even Ryan Giggs sounded like he was from here with his Swinton accent. Granted David Beckham was from Essex and sounded extremely Essex but he had a fanny parting and wore baggy jeans so he was basically an honorary Manc.
A world-famous club like Manchester United had players from places I actually knew and had been to. It made me proud, because a part of me was being represented. If only there was an Asian or Muslim role model like that growing up. A Nassar Butt instead of Nicky Butt, or even a Rahim instead of Ryan. That would have been next-level cool. It’s not like the only thing stopping me from becoming the next brown hope of English football was a role model to emulate – I ran funny because I had eczema as a kid and my asthma was worse than half the Liverpool squad – but it could and would have been the difference for Asian or Muslim lads of my generation who were actually good enough.
You always need one breakthrough, one representative who makes it feel possible for everyone else. For me, it would have done wonders for my pride in myself. It’s not like I was ever apologetic or embarrassed about who I was, but at an age when you’re desperate to just fit in you do get insecure about how you’re perceived by others, especially if how you look or sound isn’t conventionally cool or widely understood. That’s why I was so internally embarrassed when I noticed a Pakistani tinge in my accent after I came home from Sahiwal and went straight into a new school; because suddenly it seemed as if I might be a foreigner rather than someone who lives a 135 bus ride away.
A version of Nooruddean Choudry playing for United – or any club – would have been lionised and looked up to by me of course, but it would have mattered just as much if my white mates were idolising them too. I know such a yearning for external validation sounds desperately needy in an adult context, but as a kid it did matter. Here’s an even sadder version of that: I remember a few of us went to my mate Anil’s house and we spotted a poster of Bollywood actress Madhuri Dixit on his bedroom wall. One of our white friends asked who it was. When Anil told him, he replied: “Oh right, she’s gorgeous” – and I was actually a bit chuffed that he found an Asian person attractive.
In the absence of a football role model of Asian persuasion, I had to look elsewhere and find the next best thing. One of the big Pakistani heroes of my childhood wasn’t even Pakistani. Prince Naseem Hamed looked apna, dressed apna, moved apna, and even had an apna-style high fade of the like you only got at Asian barbers where they spelt “haircuts” with a K and a Z. Alas he wasn’t apna at all – he was Arab, of Yemeni descent. But in the absence of a Karachi Kanchelskis or a Lahori Lee Sharpe, there were enough similarities between him and me for the dream to be real. We could definitely have passed for first cousins, if not brothers. We were both short; both Muslim and brown; both working-class and northern; both proud owners of what could be described as a “Roman nose” (via Sahiwal and Sana’a); and importantly we were both southpaws (although granted I used mine to continually draw that pointy “S” in school exercise books, not for fighting).
The one thing Naz had that I didn’t was the part of him I admired the most: fearlessness. In any immigrant community, the first wave are naturally the most cautious and inhibited, and subsequent generations have the luxury to feel more settled and confident about who they are. Naz had skipped around 12 generations and arrived from a future time where cultural insecurity just wasn’t a thing. It was like he was so head over heels in love with himself that your opinion, good or bad, was incidental. The fact that he walked into the ring with the union jack and Yemeni tricolour side by side was a big “oof” in itself, but the brazen confidence to recite the Shahada in front of a sold-out arena full of well-lubricated boxing fans – in America of all places – was beyond anything I’d imagined.
To me and many Asian lads, he was a revelation. We claimed him as our own in an act of brazen appropriation. The fact Prince Naseem was such an outrageous and consistent showboater was obviously going rub certain commentators up the wrong way, but there always seemed to be an extra little edge to their irritation. It was like they were desperate for him to get his comeuppance and be taken down a peg or 10 with a good crack to the jaw. I get that his style was bound to annoy some people, but for those of us who’d had it drummed into us from a young age to keep our heads down, not make waves, not upset anyone, always be grateful, never to rock the boat or draw attention and always remain faultlessly humble, well … it was great to see Naz lording it over all-comers.
Seeing as us Asians aren’t always the biggest, it was a buzz to know that our short king and adopted brother could do fight or flight with the same contemptuous ease. Did it somehow make me harder by association? No. Did it inspire me to hit the gym and emulate my leopard-print clad brethren? Also no. But it allowed me and many others like me to take vicarious pleasure in someone smashing the easy target stereotype. Maybe that’s a little part of why some people had such an impulsive aversion to him.
Inshallah United: A Story of Faith and Football by Nooruddean Choudry is published by HarperNorth on 16 March (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply