London Tigers celebrated 25 years of serving the Asian and BME community in the capital last month. Alex Lawson caught up with the charity’s chief executive Mesba Ahmed to discuss burgeoning talent, political power and why his dream is to develop one of the best Asian semi-pro football clubs in the UK.
“We could have David Beckham come down here and take lots of nice photos with him; that’s all great but to run a community football club you need money,” says Mesba Ahmed, a man with the determination, passion and dedication to ensure the long-term future of one of the UK’s most established and vital sporting charities.
London Tigers – initially formed by Mesba in 1986 as Marylebone FC and formalised in 1999 – has grown from a five-a-side youth football club on a housing estate in Westminster representing the deprived Bangladeshi community, to a fully fledged multi-sport fitness, education, community safety, volunteering and health organisation with more than 40 full and part-time staff.
The organisation received funding worth £762,370 last financial year but recent local government cuts have put the charity’s future in doubt with the prospect of Mesba running the wide-reaching organisation alone.
“I do not know what the government think they are doing, do they just think they are going to blink and community issues will disappear?” said Mesba. “Some of the people that we work with are the most disadvantaged from low income families and deprived local neighbourhoods.”
To understand what Mesba fears losing requires an understanding that London Tigers are far more than a football team. With projects rolled out in Oldham and Birmingham, a badminton club and cricket club with three teams, and a programme to bring rural footballers to the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka, the Tigers’ reach is extensive. Moreover, the charity has taken teams up and down the country into Europe and Asia to play in tournaments and increase awareness of the UK Bengali community. It also has a strong emphasis on increasing the number of women in sport and improving health and educational standards.
Mesba has worked hard to gain political clout in the UK. London Tigers Patron, Mayor of London Boris Johnson, addressed last month’s 25 year anniversary ceremony at The Troxy in Tower Hamlets and his predecessor, Ken Livingstone, approached the charity to offer involvement and became patron before him.
But getting round the table has not always proved easy. Mesba, who managed the UK Bangladesh football team in the Inner City World Cups in 1998, 2004 (runners up), and 2001 (winners), has attempted to improve the quality of the Bangladesh B League through a directorship but gave up following too much political interference and poor football development structure. Likewise, the Bengali national team languishes at 157 in the FIFA rankings but Mesba is confident that with political backing a real passion for the sport could be harboured, and the team could catch up the likes of Japan, North and South Korea and Australia in vying for World Cup qualification in the next ten years.
He was a former FA’s Race Equality Advisory Board member, though did not continue his position at renewal as his time was better spent managing the London Tigers growth as an organisation. It now goes beyond representing the UK Bangladeshi community alone to serve 3,000 members from 60 different countries.
But Mesba is confident that Asian footballers in the UK have proven themselves and is frustrated by question marks over why there is a dearth of players in top divisions.
“People say Asian players do not have the size or physique to become professional players – rubbish. When Bangladesh won the Inner City World Cup in London people were shocked with the standard of play, the Portuguese and African teams were really strong but our players were artists and had the fitness to win,” said Mesba. “Size is not the issue – coaching and facilities are.
“You give me the resources to have quality coaching and access to facilities – to train under floodlights in the winter within some of London’s poorest local communities then things can change.”
Mesba was determined to create a semi-pro club within his organisation with a football youth structure from under 8 to under 18’s – a dream and ambition right from the start. This will provide a platform for his talented young players to play at a standard attractive for scouts from above their level which currently stands at Step 5 Spartan South Midlands football league Premier Division. Some players are now playing in the Conference league and abroad in professional leagues from Sweden, Cyprus and Bangladesh.
One of Mesba’s aims is for the Asian Premier League which is managed by Tigers in London to fold due to lack of participation, an odd ambition for the league’s founder on paper. But his determination to see less segregation in British football and Asian teams joining mainstream leagues is clear and, with just eight teams left from an initial 20, the goal shouldn’t be too far off.
“It’s natural for people to start out playing among people they know in their comfort zone,” added Mesba. “But ultimately I don’t want players to be stigmatised and to play at the best level for them.”
Ultimately, public sector cuts may tame the Tigers’ mighty ambition for 2012. Over the coming year, youngsters will play in the tenth annual UK Asian Community Cup where in the past finals have been hosted by Chelsea FC and QPR FC at their stadiums. Further Tigers clubs will spring up in Bedford, Luton, Portsmouth and St Albans and its new west London multi-purpose community hub and sport complex, Spikes Bridge Park in Southall, is set to open around the time of the Olympic Games.
The new £2.2million ground will have cricket, tennis, football, aerobics and martial arts facilities as well as accredited teaching and volunteer development. Mesba will also travel to Bangladesh to oversee their recently launched U16 Football team, which will participate in the National Pioneer U16 Football Tournament in January with a possible place in the Bengali third division at stake.
It seems clear that 2012 could really be the year of the Tiger at home and abroad.
Tags: Bangladesh, Chelsea, Community, Community Matters, London Tigers, Mesba Ahmed, QPR