Roger Verdi: He could have been the first Asian player to play top-flight football in England

Roger Verdi (back row, far right) in an FA Youth Cup fifth-round tie between Coventry City and Ipswich Town at Highfield Road – Photo: BBC
By Tusdiq Din | BBC |

Roger Verdi could have been the first Asian player to play top-flight football in England.

But this was the 1970s. And despite being rated highly by former England manager Sir Bobby Robson, joining the academies of Wolves and Ipswich, and even changing his name, Verdi’s career was restricted to the USA.

There, he shared the pitch with legends of the game – Pele, George Best, Franz Beckenbauer, Sir Geoff Hurst, Johann Cruyff, Bobby Moore and Eusebio were among them.

Now aged 66 and living in Dallas, Texas, where he has worked in construction since retiring 32 years ago, he still possesses a handwritten reference from Robson, scribbled down in the mid-90s with a view to helping Verdi find a job in coaching.

“Without question, I can vouch for his integrity, honesty, character, attitude, enthusiasm, commitment and passion for Association Football,” it reads.

Despite that endorsement, and former boss Harry Redknapp describing him as “a strong, wholehearted player” who “went to America and challenged superstars”, Verdi is largely forgotten in Britain.

A ‘stage name’ – from Rajinder to Roger

Born Rajinder Singh Virdee in Nairobi, the youngest of two sons to Indian Sikh parents – carpenter Amar Singh Virdee and housewife Katar Kaur – the family fled the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya to settle in Smethwick in the West Midlands in 1960 when he was seven.

Football was his passion and while at Sandwell Boys school Verdi eschewed Rajinder Singh Virdee for what he calls “a stage name”, hoping that a change would help him fit in and open doors in an era when racism was rife.

Initially using Roger Jones, he became Roger Jones Verdi, before settling on Roger Verdi.

“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 said.

“I knew I had to create an environment away from my own culture to reach my goals. I went to the Hawthorns to watch West Bromwich Albion every other Saturday. I was the only Asian in the crowd.

“Being black or Asian, you have to work harder to impress. I think the Asian kid who wants to be a footballer has to have that drive and resilience and mental toughness.

“I had people call me names when I played, especially London boys. But I just laughed and shook their hand after the game. A Sikh is never sensitive to adversity. To beat racism one has to ignore it and I did, because I accepted it, but I was bigger than it.”

See the full story, Roger Verdi: Marking Pele and playing darts with George Best (BBC, 3 April 2019), here.


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