Asian Football Players
FC Edmonton’s Netan Sansara : ‘I was never made to feel different by my coaches’. Photograph: Dale MacMillan/FC Edmonton
The former England Under-18 defender has travelled the world thanks to his football career. Now he hopes other British Asian players will do the same
Many column inches have been filled in recent years on the benefits of English football players and coaches trying their hand at working abroad. Netan Sansara, one Englishman doing just that, happens to agree with them.
Sansara currently resides in Edmonton, Canada, where he plays for FC Edmonton of the North American Soccer League. During his 10-year professional career, the 27-year-old’s work has seen him play in six countries for nine teams.
“You never know how it is in England, ” Sansara tells the Guardian. “It’s such a tough market that I might never have been able to stay in the game as long as I have there.”
As well as hoping his journey can inspire other Britons to use professional football as a way to see the world, Sansara would like his career path to encourage other British Asians to play the game. The defender has spent time working with Asian communities in the hope of increasing the number of players entering the professional game.
Sansara – whose parents are British-born and of Indian descent – grew up in Darlaston in the West Midlands, and after a successful school career was signed by his boyhood club, Walsall. In 2008, while part of the club’s youth set-up, he was called up to an England U-18s squad that included the likes of Daniel Sturridge. In August that same year, Sansara made his professional debut for Walsall, aged 17.
During his time in Walsall’s youth team Sansara says his parents, Usha and Mohinda, placed a great deal of emphasis on education, making sure their son completed his A-Levels. While playing in the youth ranks, Sansara said, it never crossed his mind that there were very few British Asian players. It was at professional level, though, that he began to consider and the PFA on efforts to increase the number of British Asians looking at professional football as a career path. He attended meetings with fellow players Anwar Uddin and Zesh Rehman, went to football events in Asian communities and visited Sikh temples to talk to youngsters who might have an interest in the game.
“Coming from an Asian culture, I grew up on family values and education, and I was trying to make a point of, ‘We’ve all been brought up on those values, but, at the same time, there is a career to be made in this sport, ’” Sansara said. “I feel like Asian communities do not do enough to show that there are Asian professional footballers out there [in Britain] ... with our population growing all the time and a lot of successful Asian people, why can’t there be successful Asian people in football?
After two years with the Walsall, Sansara was released having made 27 league appearances for the club. Following a brief spell with Dundee in 2010, he struggled to find a club that would sign him long-term. It was during this time, he admits, that he found coping with the realities of professional football difficult.
“I played for my hometown club and then I left there and I thought my world had ended, ” Sansara said. “I was really bitter about it and didn’t know how to deal with it.”
Wallsall’s Netan Sansara shields the ball from Ben Billingham of Stourbridge during Walsall’s 1-0 win over Stourbridge in their the FA Cup 1st Round Proper Match at The War Memorial Athletic Ground in November 2009. Photograph: Richard Heathcote/The FA via Getty Images
Sansara’s message of how British Asians can use football as a way to make a living was significantly strengthened when he received an offer that summer to join the Cypriot side PAEEK FC. Struggling to make a career in England – and, he admits, having gotten used to home comforts – the defender decided to accept the offer.
“When you are at home with your parents, these are things you take for granted; you don’t have to think about it, ” he said. “So, as soon as I went abroad, it was, like, Wow, there is so much to learn. I learned so much about myself, about being independent.”
During his first season with PAEEK, Sansara played in 26 of the team’s 27 games and made the shortlist for the Player of the Year award at the inaugural Asian Football Awards. The following season, he joined Danish club FC Vestsjælland for a year, and, in 2013, was named the British Indian Awards sports personality of the year, beating the likes of Monty Panesar and Ravi Bopara.
After a spell back in England with Boston United for the 2013-2014 season, Sansara again decided that his best prospects lay abroad. He joined Fredrikstad in Norway during the summer of 2014, and in three years with the club played arguably the best football of his career, and was named team captain in the process. Sansara also met his fiancee, Marlene, while playing in Norway, but following a change of coaches at Fredrikstad, the defender again decided it was best to move.
Sansara is now based in Edmonton, where he is enjoying himself after getting to grips with the weather. “It’s very cold, but I’m enjoying it, ” he says. “To be honest, it was a bit different [to what I expected]. I’d been to New York, I’d been to other places [in America], but I’d never ever been to Canada. The people are great here; I’m comfortable; I live in a nice spot; I can study and do what I want to do.”
For now he hopes that his globe-trotting career will provide inspiration for others back home. When he returns to the UK, he intends to use his story to educate British Asians about the potential for life in professional football, as well as how athletes can use education to plan for the future. Since moving to Canada, Sansara has been undertaking online sports management degree through FIFPro Online Academy, a service for professional athletes. He hopes to play into his early 30s, but said that he understands football cannot last forever.