Dinesh Gillela and the South Asian Football Experience

Why do we enjoy playing football? Football gives us community and camaraderie. It gives discipline and dreams. Football is beautiful when players express themselves and play with freedom. When we play football, nothing else matters. Our mind is in a different realm.  However, at times the beauty of football is vandalised by verbal abuse, disguised as “passion”. This often goes ignored as “part of the game”. We all grew up playing football with friends and yes, there was friendly banter. The banter is really what brought us together. The banter of our youth was always light-hearted, jovial and never with ill intent. Verbal abuse on the other hand, is different and does not do anything positive. 

Dinesh Gillela, a solid, tough, South Asian centre-back AFC Bournemouth U21 player, says that he has been facing verbal abuse since the age of 10. He also notes that the abuse was not from his opponents, but from their parents. Many times the insults had racial undertones. Why are grown adults spending time and energy to hate a young footballer? How can one claim to love football, if one spews hate towards the players? Sadly this is the reality for many South Asians who enjoy football.

One of the main benefits of football, is the community that it creates. What is football, if it does not bring community? When the community becomes bitter and toxic it taints the beauty of football. There are many South Asian academy prospects (and football enthusiasts) whose mental health has been affected by the abuse.

There is a stigma about men seeking help, and this stigma enables total disregard for mental health. To compound matters there is additional (unnecessary) stigma about mental health in the South Asian community. This results in South Asians not pursuing football as a career or even as a hobby, while ignoring their mental health with all the problems this can bring. Fortunately, organisations such as South Asian Therapists (www.southasiantherapists.org) are working to make mental health more accessible and destigmatized in the South Asian community. 

In the case of Gillela, the name-calling and remarks were ignored for years. Perhaps he was told to “toughen up”. Regardless of which team you support, it is a shame that young boys and girls should hear strangers attack them. They are after all kids. Football chants can be hilarious and part of football culture. However, the hurling of abuse and insults to players is dehumanizing and should not be a part of football culture. Footballers are humans after all. These verbal abuses are ignored in football, because mental health in football is often ignored.

If a footballer comes out and says the fans’ words were affecting him, he/she is viewed as overpaid and weak. If anything, he/she is strong for being able to confront the issue and to ask for help. Football is beautiful when we have a culture of camaraderie, as opposed to an “us against them” mentality. We are all humans after all.

Dinesh hopes to break into Bournemouth’s first team not only for himself, but to provide belief and hope to his community. Speaking with Sky Sports, Dinesh says “For the South Asian community in general, it would be another amazing positive, because it would be another young Asian footballer going into the professional scene and making his debut – that can only be positive.

Dinesh Gillela striking a ball whilst on loan at Aldershot Town F.C.

“When we speak about [South] Asian footballers, most of them [the Indian players] are from the Punjab or Kolkata – not many are from Chennai, or South India, or even Sri Lanka. So it would be massive for the South Asian community, especially [for those that come from] Chennai. I feel like it would be massive to break through and help inspire kids in India and here. If you can inspire and educate, and help other people, I feel like it’s an opportunity you can’t pass up.”

Why do we watch football? Not to abuse, but to see players representing our club and country and we feel pride in their hard work and achievements. We can love our footballers without hating our opponents. We can only claim to love football, if we show love to footballers. Twitter after a Premier league game is filled with shallow remarks, poor understanding of football and abuse. These are done intentionally for a few meaningless likes.

There is a deeper issue. Why are we as humans, willing to disregard others for the sake of a few likes on social media. If we are not careful, we will lose football. Football will become a toxic, stress-inducing sport that we gain no pleasure from. Instead of an exciting, calming sport that we use to alleviate the pressures of life. To save football, we need to think of footballers as humans.