In October 1976, the Irish club Athlone Town signed a 23-year-old defender from the North American Soccer League club, St Louis Stars.
Ireland had seen a number of footballers from the American league, ditching the razzmatazz for the cold, wet fields of Ireland in order to keep fit, or make extra money: players like Geoff Hurst and Gordon Banks. But Roger Verdi was rather different.
Firstly, ‘Roger Verdi’ was a ‘stage name.’ An Anglo-Italianised version of Rajinder Singh Virdee, who was one of those rare phenomena in professional soccer over the past 50-odd years: a British Asian.
Born in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1953, his parents took a rather familiar path to Britain, settling in Wolverhampton in the 1960s.
He first played for Wolverhampton Wanderers youths at 15, and then Ipswich Town two years later. While he later hailed Tractor Boys’ manager Bobby Robson as a friend and mentor, Athlone’s local newspaper reported in 1976 that Verdi’s career ended due to Robson being unimpressed with his ‘lack of height.’
This was a common contemporary stereotype about what the sportswriter Sanjiev Johal called the ‘enduring myth’ of the South Asian’s ‘stamina and strength deficiencies.’
Verdi contradicted this stereotype, and when he moved to Athlone, following a recommendation by an Irish team-mate at the Stars, he demonstrated a ruggedness that matched the tough tackling League of Ireland. In three months, he picked up numerous yellow cards, and on Boxing Day 1976, was sent off during a 4-3 away defeat to Dundalk, alongside Dundalk’s Seamus McDowall.
Verdi played for eight North American clubs, from Vancouver to Miami in a nine-year career. Moving into construction in Texas, he also took up coaching, which included one spell with Stockport County and another with Athlone Town.
“Times were hard for me to fulfil my dreams, and I had to make some adjustments from my culture to fit in the English environment to try and achieve my goals,” he told BBC Sport in 2019, adding he was the only Asian face when he went to watch West Bromwich Albion every fortnight.
“I think the Asian kid who wants to be a footballer has to have that drive and resilience and mental toughness.”
Verdi was possibly the first Asian footballer to play in the NASL. He was certainly the first to play in Ireland. It would take a further 28 years before Zesh Rehman became the first player of full Asian heritage to appear in England’s top tier.
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