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South Asians in Football: Derby's Kira Rai tells Asian Media Awards work has only just begun to drive change in the English game

Derby County footballer Kira Rai has emerged in recent years as a leading voice for change for diverse communities in football; Sikh-Punjabi sensation Rai has scored in consecutive games, either side of supporting an Arsenal girls’ football drive and presenting an Asian Media Award

Kira Rai presents the inaugural Diversity in Media Award at the Asian Media Awards to Sky Sports
Image: Kira Rai (middle) shattered another glass ceiling at the 2023 Asian Media Awards in Manchester

Derby County trailblazer Kira Rai says the work has only just begun after speaking of her pride at changing the face of women's football together with Sky Sports.

The Sikh-Punjabi attacker spoke as she became the first South Asian heritage footballer, male or female, ever to present an award at the annual Asian Media Awards.

Image: Alan Shearer is one of the greatest strikers of the Premier League era

The only other footballer to have presented an award at the long-running gala event rewarding excellence in the media is England and Newcastle United legend Alan Shearer.

Rai accepted an invitation from organisers to travel to Manchester on Friday and present the first-ever Diversity in Media accolade at the Asian Media Awards to Sky Sports in recognition of efforts to improve representation, and commitment towards British South Asians in Football.

Kira Rai shattered another glass ceiling at the 2023 Asian Media Awards in Manchester
Image: Kira Rai wants to see more girls who look like her playing at the highest level

Brought onto stage by broadcaster and host Neev Spencer, Derby County trailblazer Rai was cheered on as she went up to present the award by Blackburn Rovers midfielder Millie Chandarana, former player Zarah Shah and freestyle footballer Kaljit Atwal.

"I have been privileged enough to have Sky Sports share my journey," Rai told the Asian Media Awards.

"Sky Sports has been a safe space for me to share my journey, giving me a platform to use my voice to try and inspire the next generation of South Asian girls coming through.

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"Together, we have changed English football - and we have only just begun."

Rai has become a leading voice for South Asian women in competitive English football since trusting Sky Sports News to conduct her first interview with a major platform, back in 2021.

The Burton-born winger began the week with a star-turn cameo performance as she came off the bench to win a penalty, before producing a vintage trademark finish to wrap up the three points as Derby hammered Fylde 4-0.

A day later, Rai joined Sky Sports News' Dev Trehan at Arsenal's Hale End academy training ground in support of the community after a week of intense scrutiny over a recent Arsenal Women first-team squad photo, which was largely white.

Rai, who shared insight and offered advice to players, parents and coaches, added: "It was especially sweet to score at the end of a week where the lack of ethnic diversity in the women's game has once again become a major talking point.

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"I'm really proud to be one of those flying the flag for South Asian girls in the women's game."

Wiegman: I'm happy with what we're doing

England manager Sarina Wiegman was also forced to address the issue of a lack of diversity in the women's game ahead of their 1-0 win against Belgium at Leicester's King Power Stadium.

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England women's head coach Sarina Wiegman says that better representation in football 'doesn't change overnight' and that she is 'happy with all the things' being brought in to encourage access to football for everyone

Wiegman said: "I'm happy with all the things we're doing, but that doesn't change overnight. It's not going to change in a month or two months."

But Chelsea manager Emma Hayes has been among those scathing of the shameful lack of diversity in the women's game, describing it back in February of this year as a "middle-class sport".

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Sheffield United's Courtney Sweetman-Kirk has called for urgent action to address the lack of diversity within the women's game on a number of occasions

And an independent review into domestic women's football ordered by government, and led by England legend Karen Carney, concluded back in July that: "the FA should urgently address the lack of diversity across the women's game."

Rai: It has to change

Kira Rai, Derby County

English football's national governing body does not have any specific initiatives in place to support the development of female players from South Asian backgrounds.

That is despite a lack of readily-available data about players from the community, and the fact that South Asians are the largest single ethnic minority female group in the country.

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Rai and a number of other players from South Asian backgrounds across the game have told Sky Sports News that this is something that needs to be urgently addressed.

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Speaking to Sky Sports News a couple of months after England fielded an all-white starting XI for every match of the Women's European Championship, Rai hit out at the lack of diversity in women's football, adding that the pace of change was too slow.

"It has to change - and hopefully that time is soon," Rai said.

"A lot more work needs to be put in at the elite level to make it a level playing field for everyone involved.

"Of course, the authorities need to do more, everybody needs to do more to make it more diverse at every level of the game."

South Asians in Football strategy calls grow

Yunus Lunat, Azeem Rafiq, Abu Nasir, Butch Fazal
Image: Veteran South Asians in Football campaigners Yunus Lunat, Abu Nasir and Butch Fazal pictured with Azeem Rafiq (second from left)

The future of South Asians in Football more broadly was also being discussed by people from grassroots all the way through to the elite level of the game on the sidelines of the Sporting Equals Awards.

Officials from Sporting Khalsa, Southall FC and the Khalsa Football Federation were all agreed on the need for a game-wide British South Asians in Football strategy.

The first Muslim member of the FA Council Yunus Lunat and former FA National Game Board member Abu Nasir also signalled their agreement.

Trailblazer and former Newcastle United striker Michael Chopra was also involved in deep discussions about the state of play - against the backdrop of zero per cent British South Asian representation on the pitch in the Premier League last season.

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Even legendary former England netball captain Ama Agbeze MBE actively engaged in discussions, lending her support and expressing her concern about South Asian representation at the highest level of the Beautiful Game.

The rise of Kira Rai

Rai started out at Burton Albion, before joining Derby County while still at primary school. She has played in every age-group side and is in her 15th year at the club.

The attacker has been sponsored by official Derby County supporters' club the Punjabi Rams for a number of years now, with the group signposting Rai to FA Level 2 scout and journalist Dev Trehan when she was a teenager.

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Speaking to Sky Sports News two years ago, ahead of the Vaisakhi festival which is celebrated widely by Sikhs and Hindus, Rai said she feels fortunate to have the support of everyone at the football club including the Punjabi Rams.

"It's massive to have their support," she said.

"Within Derby I've always been pushed, I've had a lot of support from the club, but then to have your own little community within a club is massive.

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Derby County Women's winger Kira Rai says she feels lucky to enjoy the support of fans' group the Punjabi Rams

"I feel that's quite a unique thing for me to have and I feel lucky to have that. And obviously, being a Punjabi girl, having their support [is an amazing feeling].

"It's like you have your own community behind you and you want to be an inspiration for them, but they are also an inspiration for me. They highlight and show football in a South Asian setting is normal."

Rai has since gone on to become the first Punjabi player ever to pull on a Derby County shirt and score at Pride Park Stadium.

She worked with Trehan and national sports race equality charity Sporting Equals to devise and deliver the Seeing is Believing girls' football initiative in 2021, designed to encourage more South Asian female participation in the game.

Rai also agreed to have her story showcased as part of the first-ever exhibition documenting the journey of South Asian heritage women in the modern English game.

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Trehan, who is Britain's only dedicated spotter of South Asian female talent, has publicly said on a number of occasions that Rai was a major inspiration for both projects - along with other high-potential players from clubs across the country that he has worked with.

The display was launched at Stamford Bridge and has gone on show at Wembley Stadium, as well as at community hubs across the country.

It is currently on display at the Wolves Museum at the club's Molineux Stadium and has now been seen by tens of thousands of people, raising positive awareness about South Asian trailblazers in the women's game.

Britain's first turbaned Sikh Member of Parliament, Tan Dhesi, visited the showcase earlier this year at Singh Sabha Sports Centre in his home constituency of Slough.

"Everyone is very proud to see it hosted at Singh Sabha Slough Sports Centre, which is a major hub of activity for young people, especially those of South Asian heritage," Dhesi said.

Tan Dhesi timeline
Image: Tan Dhesi MP visited the first-of-its-kind timeline and showcase at Singh Sabha Sports Centre in his home constituency of Slough

"And when they come along and see this exhibition, they now have role models [that they never knew existed] that they too can aspire to be like and emulate. They can go away thinking 'if she can do it, why can't I?'.

"Representation matters and it does not matter what sphere that is in. It's wonderful to see the advances that South Asian heritage female players have made, particularly in the last decade."

Speaking at the inaugural Women's Copa Del CL charity tournament at St George's Park, former England international and non-independent director of the FA Women's National Board Eartha Pond hailed the timeline as a celebration of "greatness" in the game.

"I played with a lot of South Asian players, even from grassroots level at 14. They have been playing and I just don't think it has been captured.

"So it's great to see the showcase, very, very pleasing. It's just about celebrating, there is so much greatness within the game, and it's not just about diversity in terms of colour, it's also about diversity in terms of mindset, experiences, and cultures. That's what Britain brings."

The first-of-its-kind timeline features 20 current and former players from South Asian backgrounds, with Rai and West Brom starlet Mariam Mahmood making a dual entry after a historic game at The Hawthorns last year.

Sky Sports exclusively revealed last year that West Bromwich Albion Women would be hosting Derby at The Hawthorns.

And in November, the pair both netted in just the second ever women's game played at the famous stadium, which has been home to West Brom's men's team for 123 years.

Mahmood: Our stories matter

"It's great to feature in the timeline alongside Kira," said Mahmood. "Seeing us feature on the boards shows how far we have come, but also shows how much further we have to go.

"Education and bridging the gap in knowledge about South Asians in football remains a major issue. Our stories matter and I hope this raises positive awareness and encourages more children, particularly girls from South Asian backgrounds, to take up the game and enjoy playing football."

Blackburn Rovers midfielder Chandarana said: "We can now see all the great things that these girls have achieved and continue to achieve, and it's great to be a small part of it.

"I hope it gives inspiration to many more, to show that a career in football is possible for women from the South Asian community."

Rai added: "To feature alongside some fabulous South Asian women as part of the history of the English women's game is a matter of huge pride for me, my family and my football club.

"We know women's football is not as diverse as it should be, and I want to play my part to help change that. I hope this inspires the next generation and gives talented girls who look like me the belief that they can also make it in the game."

Team of the Season

Rai is coming off the back of her best campaign with the club, with her performances last term earning her a place alongside the likes of Chandarana, Mahmood and Ross County forward Yan Dhanda in a first-of-its-kind South Asians in Football Team of the Season.

The last week has been a busy one for Rai, scoring for Derby County, heading down to support her community, Arsenal and the women's game - before presenting an award.

But she took it all in her stride, returning to Derby's starting line-up and opening the scoring in a 5-2 win against Northampton at the weekend as the Ewe Rams made it four wins on the spin.

"That's our Kira for you," says Punjabi Rams co-founder Pav Samra.

Kira Rai Derby

"She's dedicated and nothing seems to faze her.

"Everyone across Derby County is really proud of her. She really is one of our own."

British South Asians in Football

For more stories, features and videos, visit our groundbreaking South Asians in Football page on and South Asians in the Game blog and stay tuned to Sky Sports News and our Sky Sports digital platforms.

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