“I’m still very much confused. That’s the hard thing about growing up, I guess. I want to show people you don’t have to be one thing. My answer is why do we have to be one thing? I was a footballer, I was a marketer, now I’m a cook.”Aman Dosanj
Kelowna is a quaint little city sat on the banks of the Okanagan Lake in British Columbia, Canada. With several national parks, lakes and mountain ranges, it’s separated from most of the nation’s largest cities, sitting four hours east of Vancouver and north of the border with the United States.
Little out of the ordinary happens and many of its 142,000 inhabitants have little idea they share a city with a woman who once made history as the first British South Asian person to represent England at any level.
Three months before Michael Chopra became the first male British South Asian to represent England, Aman Dosanj pulled on a Lionesses shirt at the Under-16s level in April 1999 and made a bit of history that can never be taken away.
Dosanj’s career as a goalkeeper was promising, despite only being 5’2″, signing for Arsenal at 15, but after a spell in the U.S. her attentions turned more to life outside football before an array of family dramas led her on the path to where she is now, flying around Canada, buried in the world of food and culture and still very much finding herself.
Hers is a story of success and inspiration but also of loss and exploring her own culture. Across an hour we speak about racism, Bend it Like Beckham’s impact, and how family illness led her to the very western point of the world and reconnecting with her life in football.
“My brother was football mad and he always wanted a brother — instead he got me,” laughed Dosanj, whose quick wit through a still broad English accent is still evident despite 13 years across the pond.
“He would take me out into the garden and just fire shots at me, so in time I actually got pretty good at stopping them!”
Dosanj began playing for her school team where she grew up in Southampton at Newlands Infant School, where she was the only girl.
Her mum, a beautician, was scared about her getting hurt, but she found Dosanj her first team, the Southampton Saints.
“They were Red Star Southampton at the time, but would go on to become Southampton Saints,” she recalled. “I managed to train a bit with Sue Buckett [ormer England goalkeeper], my parents would drop me off, sit in the car and then drive me home.
“I remember vividly one night after training Sue said she wanted to speak to my parents. She came over and told my mum that with the right encouragement and training she could see me playing for England. From then on, my parents were fully on board, watching games, learning about the game, I had their support ever since.”
Dosanj was 14 when she got her England call-up for a youth tournament in Dublin, Ireland.
After impressing, Arsenal invited her to a preseason tournament, also in Ireland, and after that formally scouted her before signing her up.
“Whenever Arsenal came to Southampton, I’d be decked out in my brother’s hand-me-down kit having pictures with Rachel Yankey and Marieanne Spacey, so to go and play with them was super amazing.
“David Seaman was my biggest role model at the time and I met him before I made by England debut, I had a nice conversation with him and he signed my gloves!”
Now at the biggest club in England and playing with future stars such as Fara Williams, Casey Stoney, and Alex Scott with the England youth sides, everything looked rosy for Dosanj, including a scholarship to Lee University in Tennessee that ultimately wasn’t the “right fit.” She then returned to England and Brunel University before several injuries, including a serious knee injury, took their toll.
The disappointment led to Dosanj wanting to “explore other parts of herself,” though she always intended on returning to football, even if it never materialized.
“My first year at university I fell in love with marketing, though it helps when you get an A in something!
“I think it was time to start from scratch. I was in halls, I didn’t tell anyone I played football. Nobody there knew me, but then I won a BBC award, everyone watched it and was like, ‘Oh shit, that’s you,’ and I was just like, ‘fuck,’ there was no kind of escaping ‘it.’
“Should people have been surprised? That was another part of the dynamic.”
The dynamic Dosanj refers to is the surprise a British South Asian girl played football, particularly at a level that took her to Arsenal and the England youth teams.
As the first, Dosanj was out on her own before future Premier League forward Chopra did the same three months later, but she recalls only ever being focused on her love for football rather than what it all meant off the pitch given how young she was.
“I consider me and Michael as together in it, it’s ‘we’ were the first, rather than just me. We needed that push, but unfortunately, we’re still waiting.
“Growing up, I was just a kid who was football-obsessed. I was England mad, prior to every tournament it was the biggest thing ever. I just wanted to play and represent my country. It wasn’t something I even thought about when I became the first, that kind of came afterwards.
“I came from a very open-minded family, always very encouraging and wanted us to be us. We’re not the most conventional brown family, but we are in our values. My grandma lived with us, she watched the games with us, she was an Arsenal fan, knew all the players and everything.
“There were things they didn’t always quite understand. I wasn’t always around for weddings and birthdays and events because I was always playing football, although I think my dad quite enjoyed it because it got him out of going to the temple!”
Despite the pathway she was forging, a lack of attention on the women’s game meant Dosanj’s story went under the radar until 2002 when the film Bend it like Beckham hit the cinema screens.
Bend It and Beyond
The story of Jesminder “Jess” Bhamra, played by Parminder Nagra, had uncanny similarities to the real-world story of Dosanj: both Sikhs, both football mad, both growing up in London, both missing family events for their love of football, both ultimately taking on a scholarship to go and play in the U.S.
With the film an instant hit, suddenly Dosanj’s story became known, and there were articles in the Telegraph, the Metro and on the BBC about how a young girl was actually a real life Bhamra.
“I think Bend it like Beckham has been a huge turning point for people seeing the culture for what it is,” Dosanj said. “It was so lovely to see a movie which became so mainstream and centered around Indian people and Indian culture and was directed in a way where there was honest representation.
“It was cool because my story hadn’t been picked up, even when I played for England, but when the film came out I was in a whole bunch of different outlets, so it had an impact. I grew up not having too many role models on the TV or in football.”
She expands on the importance of seeing an actual authentic story about her culture, and the importance its relevance and accuracy had on her and her community.
“I grew up with Madhur Jaffrey cooking on the BBC. Other than that, the roles were very much you’re either going to work in a convenience store, be a taxi driver, or a doctor — that was kind of the range of it, the biggest celebrity was fucking Apu from The Simpsons.
“I remember watching Short Circuit and the doctor was just a white actor in brownface, rather than an actual brown person. Then suddenly we had someone from our community direct a film and to see Parminder’s career go on here this side of the pond has been awesome, and Keira Knightley’s career exploded off that one movie, too.
“It’s not just about football, it never has been. It’s a small little glimpse into what the world is and what it could be.”
With football though on the back burner for Dosanj post-university, she was an anti-racism ambassador for both Football For All and Kick It Out, as well as the English Football Association, even before the release of Bend it like Beckham.
Dosanj became a prominent anti-racism campaigner but is no longer associated with the FA, despite feeling the need to reach back out to them after the Euro 2020 final last year, but she never heard back.
“I think after the England versus Italy game when all that erupted, it was important for me to reach out. When I moved over here I didn’t necessarily feel my story was relevant anymore; in a sense I live here and don’t play football, but I woke up to all the racial stuff after that game and that was hard to take because I represented England too, and you can’t just celebrate people of color when we win and when it’s convenient.
“It showed how much work there still is to do. I’m patiently waiting for the next brown kid to follow in our footsteps at an international level. Just because we beat the odds doesn’t mean it fixes the system, so I felt it was important for me to reach out with my contact details, but I haven’t heard back.”
With Dosanj still connected to the sport through her anti-racism work but no longer playing, there became a need to begin a career of some sort, with marketing the obvious place to start after falling in love with the area of interest during her days at university.
“I was always quite focused on what I wanted to do,” she said. “I wanted to represent England, which I did. I wanted to play for Arsenal, which I did. Then I wanted to get a degree, which I did. One of the hard things when you’re growing up in Southampton is everyone knows everyone, I was always ‘football Aman,’ so when I got to university I wanted people to see there was another side to me.
“I was realistic knowing the female game wouldn’t progress at that time as far as I needed it to be a career, so that’s when after my dissertation I started work experience in the marketing department at Southampton FC. I did a project for the FA, got an advertising job at B&Q, and then jumped over to Nike in their office at Carnaby Street.”
With things looking positive away from the field, Dosanj’s whole life plan was turned upside down and pointed on a path that leads her to where she is today — the other side of the world roaming around Canada.
Cooking in Canada
No longer football, but food and marketing intertwined, a move in geographical terms and area of interest she admits was ‘‘very unexpected” and not in the plan, she takes up the story of how a girl who had grown up in the south of England ended up in western Canada.
“My dad came here traveling in 1991. He enjoyed it and fell in love with it, but all our immediate family is in England and we decided to stay. One trip he went to visit my mum’s family in India and he got a little sick, they detected he needed a triple heart bypass, he had a 90 percent blockage.”
Things deteriorated when on the flight home to England, Dosanj’s dad suffered a stroke, but fortunately a medical student on the flight informed Virgin of the need to urgently divert to the closest airport, which was Amsterdam just 15 minutes away.
Dosanj and her brother flew out to be with him as he recovered, but after returning to England knew a move to his dream home of Canada would soon be a possibility.
“I knew my thinking of always staying in London and my career in marketing was probably done. I was a city kid at heart, always worked in London, but it was dad’s dream, so we all moved here as a family, a country I’d never even visited before.”
The situation worsened when her dad was diagnosed with pancreatitis soon after arriving in the country, and Dosanj admits being put into a room with her mum and family in an unfamiliar country and being told her dad’s organs were shutting down, with no support system around them, was a more than daunting ordeal.
“We started looking at business plans and an Indian restaurant made sense. I didn’t like the Indian food in Canada, so we did a farm-to-table style restaurant supporting local farmers, we wanted to have a wider impact and trying to make it home for ourselves.
“We had that for two years then my grandma got sick. Shortly after, the chefs we got permanent residency for left. That’s how I started cooking. When you have a family-run business, you do what you need to do to keep the doors open. That’s when I placed my marketing career on hold.”
The family strife didn’t end there. Dosanj and her family closed the restaurant in 2016 after her mum suffered a heart attack and with no staff, the reality of the situation hit home in real fashion for the former goalkeeper.
“Five days after her stent was put in she felt she had no choice but to come back. I was so on edge and that’s when I stepped in and said we can’t work 16-hour days, six days a week. We were trying to build a better life but we weren’t necessarily getting it.”
The keys to the restaurant were handed over on January 11, 2016. By March, Dosanj was “in the clouds” as she puts it, but not metaphorically, traveling around the world to 10 different countries, writing about food and how it connects people.
“I wrote about how food can heal us, because a lot had happened, we’d gone through a lot and I needed to do something just for me. During that time, I said I’d never work in a restaurant again but then all these magical things happened and I looked at things very differently.
“Food wasn’t my problem, it was the industry. The hours, the unfairness, the inequity, so I flipped it, did a pop-up model. I’m on a farm, I get better people better connected to where their food comes from. I grew up in my garden, one end of our garden had cricket stumps and the other had a football goal, and in the middle was a rather inconvenient apple tree. That was one of my biggest memories, my grandma making apple crumble from that tree when we got home from school.”
It is also giving Dosanj an opportunity to pursue the equality through food that she pursued through football, staying true to her community and her roots back home, where most of her family still resides while she fights the fight across the pond.
“Every dinner for me is about fairness and equality and we continue the work I started as a youngster with Kick It Out and Football For All. Food connects us just like football connects us. None of this was planned, I never thought I would be in Canada for 13 years.
“It has been interesting and confusing to be a British-born Indian and now also Canadian. I just say I’m an English person who jumped across the pond and got confused. I’m figuring it out, I write for magazines, make my own spices for the outdoors and try to make Indian spices less intimidating and more fun, and a percentage of my sales go to a rotation of anti-racism organizations.”
Dosanj had raised almost $70,000 for various charities since 2017 alone as she looks to give something back to her community, but despite finding some kind of fulfillment in a sector that looked to drag her down bit by bit, she admits she is still very much not at the end of the path.
“I’m still very much confused. That’s the hard thing about growing up, I guess. I want to show people you don’t have to be one thing. My answer is why do we have to be one thing? I was a footballer, I was a marketer, now I’m a cook.
“Small businesses are hard, you think differently and dream differently, but it doesn’t mean it’s an easy place to be, especially during a pandemic. My business model is outside the box so I’ve not had much government support, but last week I launched a collaborative beer in Nova Scotia which is in the east, and I’m here in the west, so stuff like that I’m really proud of.”
Living at the other side of the world has also opened her eyes to how her culture is viewed in different places.
It’s still all one big journey she is still figuring out, but it is clear she feels there is still a lot of work to do when it comes to anti-racism and she is fueled in whatever she does by the want to increase understanding.
“I grew up in London where there’s people from all different cultures and I think a lot of the racism here is rooted in denial and silence. Those things are hard when you go into a workplace and you see things but people don’t see it like you do or don’t believe you and HR won’t do anything. You feel alone when no one believes you and that racial reckoning didn’t really happen here until after George Floyd’s murder. They’re the things I still struggle with.
“I’m still figuring it all out. I had a piece go to print for ELLE Canada last week and I’ve got six more assignments coming up [for Quench Magazine]. I can write from anywhere and sell spices from anywhere. I can let the dinners just be dinners because the moment it becomes a competition and about the money it changes in its essence. It’s hard, I’m still working it all out if I’m honest with you.
“I do miss working in marketing. I miss the stability, working for a big brand, but when I came here and went into marketing it ended up being the most toxic, racist environment I’ve ever been in, so that’s hard now because I’m scarred. I’d not faced it in that way, it was a lot different. So it’s all a healing process for me, which is why I’m still traveling, just to decompress and figure out what’s next.
“I think I’ll keep moving until I find somewhere that feels more like home, that’s a hard thing when you’re an immigrant. You always go searching for a piece of home. I’m in Montreal at the moment and the cobbled streets took me back to Carnaby Street. But I’m bored of scraping by, I’m ready to fly.”
Dosanj has in many ways put her days as a footballer behind her, but in 2015 she got a pleasant and unexpected surprise when the opportunity and a chance meeting with some former teammates showed itself when the Women’s World Cup, and England, came to Canada.
“We were watching games inside our kitchen,” she remembered. “When England got to the semifinals, I was like, ‘I have to go.’ I bought a flight to Edmonton, got a ticket, and just by pure chance I happened to be in the same hotel as the team, so I got to reconnect with people like Fara, who remembered me despite it being so long ago. That was so lovely. I always wanted to go back into it, but it’s nice seeing my little niece, who is seven, lacing up her boots and starting to play here.
“It was awesome to see everyone and reconnect with that side of me, because I’ve tried to suppress it so people see this side of me, and maybe I’d forgotten that side of me was there. I’m not good at celebrating things, what I’ve achieved, so it was a nice moment to relive those memories with Fara, Alex, and Casey, they came flooding back and I do remember the times I had with them very, very well.”
“I bought a bottle of bubbles for them, because Fara put the ball in the German net.”