The British Asian community’s reputation as a production line for professional footballers is roughly as well established as England’s reputation for producing elite footballers who fare well when plying their trade beyond these shores. In other words, there’s not a great tradition of either.
But 23 year-old Netan Sansara confounds both of these stereotypes. The left-back, who hails from Walsall, is one of only ten players of Asian heritage to play league football in England in the last decade. He also holds the distinction of being the only player of full Asian descent to be capped at under-18 and under-19 level for England.
The son of two British-born Indian parents, Sansara was exposed to football from an early through his father’s far-from typical occupation of running a pub, as he explains: “Football was on in the all day in the pub, and my uncles used to play for the pub team, so that definitely a part in me getting into it.”
After impressing for his local team Darlaston, Sansara signed professional forms with Walsall at the age of 17 – on the condition that his contract guaranteed him two days per week away from training so he could complete his A-levels in biology, physical education and psychology.
Spells at Dundee and Corby Town followed a two-year stint in the Walsall first team, before a move to Cypriot side PAEEK in 2011, and to Denmark with FC Vestsjælland for the current season. Sansara is one of a small number of English footballers to venture beyond British shores to further their careers, but he says that more English players are becoming interested in opportunities to play overseas, not least because the pay is often better.
“A lot of English players want to play overseas now,” he says. “People are starting to realise that with English experience on your CV, you can go abroad and make a good career for yourself.
“I’ve had so many phone calls from English players in the last year or two asking if I can help them get moves. People are catching on to the fact that there’s often better money to be made in other leagues.”
The former Walsall man particularly enjoyed his year in Cyprus, during which he helped PAEEK to a fourth-placed finish in the Cypriot second division playing in the previously unfamiliar position of centre-back.
“I’m usually a left-back, but in Cyprus I played in the centre of the defence,” he explains. “The footballing culture is different. You’re not just getting smashed by six foot strikers, you get the ball down and you play.”
Having left PAEEK last summer to join FC Vestsjælland, Sansara is now chasing promotion to the Danish Superliga, with Vestsjælland currently occupying the first of two automatic promotion places with five games left to play. His appearances have been limited because of a lay-off following a broken nose, but Sansara is reasonably content with his first season in Denmark.
“Obviously when a team is winning, the coach is never going to change it,” he says. “But I’ve played fourteen games, and I’m happy with that, especially after the injury.”
After a season of playing the ball out from the back in Cyprus, Sansara has had to adjust back to a more direct, physical style at Vestsjælland: “Compared to Cyprus, Danish football a lot more physical,” he explains. “It’s similar to England in that way, though the standard is not quite as high.”
Sansara has not yet decided on his plans for next season, but admits that after two seasons playing overseas, a return to England will be on the agenda at some point in the not-too-distant future.
“Eventually, I’d like to give it another crack, whether it’s in League One or League Two, and see if I could get a move to the Championship, where I think I could play,” he says. “I’m still only 23, so I’ve still got plenty of time left to develop. Sometimes I think to myself, ‘did I leave England too soon?’ But living away from home and learning to fend for myself, adapting to a different culture and learning different languages is something I’m honoured to have experienced, and when I look back in ten years I’ll be able to say I’ve played in at least four different countries.”
“You’ve got to work hard in football,” he continues. “I moved away from my family and my friends and the English culture of going out on a Saturday night, all of which I love. I gave all that up to follow my dream and show a bit of desire, and the balls to say ‘you know what? I’m going to do what I need to do’.”
One of the most notable differences Sansara has found between playing in England and playing in Europe is that, as an English player abroad, he is seen simply as an Englishman and nothing else.
“I’m not really seen as Indian,” he explains. “I’m just seen as an English lad. No one really takes much notice of the Indian thing.”
Yet while the significance of his Asian background may have gone largely unnoticed in Cyprus and Denmark, Sansara reveals that there is serious interest from India itself.
“I’ve been offered endorsements with Nike India and things like that, which is good for me. Being of Indian heritage helps, because they would see it as a good thing to have a British Indian kid going over there to play.
“I get offers now to go and play there now, ridiculous offers in financial terms, and it’s something that I will do one day, but not now. Playing in Asia is definitely an ambition of mine, but I’d rather do it when I’m settled down with a wife and kids so I can take them all out there.”
As well as hoping to one day play club football in India, Sansara has ambitions of representing the country of his grandparents’ birth in international football, but the issue is complicated by the fact that Indian constitutional law does not currently permit dual citizenship, meaning that Sansara and other eligible players like Ipswich Town’s Michael Chopra would have to give up their British passports.
“It’s frustrating, because with almost every other country in the world you can have dual citizenship,” he explains. “But I would definitely love to play for India. They can get crowds of 100,000 at home games, and just to play in front of a crowd that size would be an experience in itself.
“It’d also give me the opportunity to play against teams like Australia and Japan, and if you perform well in a game against countries like that on television, you never know what could happen from there.”Follow James on Twitter @JamesOwensSJ.