“The complex relationship between sport and identity” – Mohammed Ahmed

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By Mohammed Ahmed

Sports and identity. It might not seem like something that would go together, but I can assure you, the two interlink as subtly as a bread does with butter.

After all, for those of you who support a football club, why do you support your football club? 99% of the time, the answer will be that you were born in the geographic proximity of that club. For instance, I was born less than 500 metres from the Manchester United stadium. Unsurprisingly, as a result of that, I am a die-hard Manchester United supporter. Either that, or the choice of club by our parents or relatives also has an impact on us. You live in Norwich but your parents support Man U? You are more likely to support MUFC than Norwich. Or, why not support both?

You can almost think of football clubs as being tribes. My tribe is better than your tribe, as we all like to boast to one another in pubs and cafes. This is also, you could say, part of human evolution – we all live in our own small tribes (families) and everyone has a special kind of affection for people who share our DNA than we do for our friends, which is a different kind of affection. It is not really a surprise that human tribal behaviour is replicated in broader society. The teams we support, the sports we watch… we develop an almost tribal attachment to them.

The complex relationship between sport and identity is far more pronounced if you come from a minority ethnic background. Especially when it comes to one particular sport: Cricket. Your mum and dad are from the Caribbean? Good! You must be a West Indies cricket fan! If you are from a British Pakistani background and a cricket fan, do you choose to support the fatherland or your adopted country? The struggle is real for people from Black Asian Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds. Norman Tebbitt must be feeling livid.

Identity issues are a struggle for many British Asians, not least my friend Usman. Usman is, like me, a British Pakistani, 23 years old and studies at university. He is (or at least was) relatively unconcerned about his multiple ethnic identity. Unlike many British Pakistanis, he smokes, drinks, talks with a relatively posh English accent and mainly dates white women, which is seen as a ‘taboo’ in many minority communities for reasons of social/cultural conservatism in our families. He does not care about his second identity, nor does he respect its cultural norms and traditions, which he sees as being backwards, and out of step with his own liberal, westernised views.

“I don’t really care about the fact that I am British Pakistani” he once told me. “The only way anyone would be able to tell that I am from a minority is my skin colour. Otherwise, I act, talk, and fit in like a native Englishman”.

When I asked him why he was so anxious to assimilate into a different culture, he merely shrugged his shoulders and said “Because it’s better”.

Usman is not the only British Asian who struggles with his identity. According to a BBC News opinion poll, 58% of British people think that immigrants to Britain should be forced to assimilate, rather than maintain their own unique culture and multicultural norms. Amongst BAME people, opinion was divided, with some favouring integration and others preferring to maintain the culture of their ancestors and relatives who first came to Britain perhaps decades ago.

He is in some ways the total opposite of me: I am not very religious, but I respect the traditions of my community and strive to follow them. I support Pakistan over England at cricket matches too.

Usman supports England in cricket and does not see the point of supporting Pakistan. I was convinced that I could find a way to unlock his mind and persuade him to explore the other side of his identity, not just his adopted one. What better way is there to do this than with sport, specifically cricket? It is something that we both enjoy and is a big part of our lives.

So I went onto the internet and searched when the next international cricket match between England and Pakistan was. Lo and behold, the match was just a month away, in September. He finally reluctantly agreed to come with me and go to the match.

While we were there, Usman was still cynical.

“What is the point of watching this here when I could be at home?” he asked me. I told him he should lighten up a little.

We were in a section of the ground which was mixed with England and Pakistan flags side by side. As soon as England batsman  Joe Root hit a six, the crowd erupted in cheers. England flags were being waved everywhere. Then Joe Root was out, and it was the turn of the Pakistani fans to go cock-a-hoop.

There is always something uniquely exciting about being a British-Pakistani at a Pakistan vs England cricket match. You can support either side, or you can support one side and expect everyone else to give you dirty looks.

Usman was, at first, sceptical, but even he was taken in by the atmosphere. I grabbed a Pakistan flag and thrust it into his hands. Suddenly even he was waving the Pakistan flag, chanting and cheering, completely taken in by what he later called an “electric atmosphere”. We both joined the Pakistani fans in singing “Pakistan Zindabad” (Long live Pakistan) and “Dil dil Pakistan” (We love Pakistan). Usman had suddenly discovered something which had eluded him for a long time: this beer drinking, white women dating, chain smoking British Pakistani had finally learned to love the other side of his identity.  I began to think that sport is such a wonderful thing, how it brings people together and can encourage people to discover other parts of themselves.

Later on, once we had left the match, I asked Usman what he thought of it.

“It was amazing!” he replied. “Never knew that I could have so much fun. Definitely going back next week.”

Since the match, Usman has somewhat toned down his rhetoric against people from his own community, and has learned to respect his culture a little more. Identity is a complex issue, but we all find our way eventually.

Mohammed Ahmed is currently studying Multimedia Journalism at Manchester Met. He likes reading, politics, travelling and the occasional cup of green tea.

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