Bangladesh has a population 160 million people with a shared passion for the game, yet their team is ranked 159th by FIFA. Why? Welcome to IBWM, Quazi Zulquarnain.
The young boy diving around in the veritable dustbowl can hardly be eight years old. He is small for his age, and most definitely either a rubbish collector or a beggar plying the clogged roads of Dhaka every day. But in the early hours of this winter morning, kicking around a deflated football in the grassless plains of a local playground, he is transformed into someone else entirely. “Bangladesh,” he shouts as he kicks the ragged football a few yards.
His partner in crime could be a twin. He has the same sunken eyes and stick arms that say poverty better than any words ever could. But early on this morning there is a sparkle in his eyes. They both shuffle around vigorously, fighting for possession and in the process kicking up enough dust to form a cloud around them; but none of it matters. Not too long afterwards, there will be food and a home to think of, or more explicitly how to get both for the day. But right here and now, the only thing that matters is the football.
Which is ironic since football in Bangladesh is at its lowest ebb. The national team is ranked a miserly 159th in the world, out of the 203 spots assigned in the rankings. For some stark perspective, New Caledonia is ranked ahead of Bangladesh, and they have a population of 0.22 million. Bangladesh in contrast, has a 160 million people. This is surprising, shocking even, when you consider that on face value, Bangladesh has almost all the requisite elements for a (moderately) successful football nation. A huge population, most of who retain more than a passing interest in the game, is just the start. There is also a keen interest in the international pursuit of the beautiful game and TV coverage of European leagues is widespread. Few other non-participating nations celebrate the World Cup with as much fervour as Bangladeshis. La Liga and the Premier League too serve as constant fodder for chatter while children from seven and over have probably stapled their hearts to a club of choice. Knock-off jerseys are must haves. And most importantly, football (at least at an amateur level) has quite possibly never been played as widely as it is now.
All this gives rise to a paradoxical question. Football is popular, but on a professional level it is still struggling. What is wrong? And it is here that the bubble bursts.
First up, the basic infrastructure leading to professional football in Bangladesh is almost non-existent. There is a lack of proper framework and as a famous Brazilian footballer once said ‘the administrators are from hell.’ The national team is on their third coach in the last two years and the last two left citing unworkable conditions or broken promises. But even such dreary reading is merely the tip of the iceberg.
The problems are far more deep-rooted. There is a lack of basic facilities, from playing fields to training institutions; there are almost no qualified coaches and marketing for football is at an all time low. Worst of all, there is almost zero interest from clubs to form academies or scout for new talent.Brazilian coach Edson Silva Dido, who left the national team in acrimonious circumstances about a year ago, pointed out the same. “In a country with so much potential in terms of human resource and players it’s just shocking to see so many good players go to waste because of the lack of knowledge of the [development] committees and coaches.”
Indeed, there are numerous talented footballers in the country who find themselves at a crossroads in their early teens. With zero scouting measures, there is little chance of them getting noticed and forging a football career with a professional club. Lower league football is very irregular and there seems to be no space for talented youngsters with an appetite for the game. Hence, one of two results manifests itself. Either these players move to more visible sports like cricket or drop out of the game altogether.
The Bangladesh Football Federation (BFF) has been working to address these issues. Current president Kazi Salahuddin was a star during football’s heyday in the 70s and 80s. A striker with the instincts of Ruud van Nistelrooy, Salahuddin once played against Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Mueller in an exhibition match in Hong Kong. Now in his role as an administrator, he has been using the same predatory instincts to poach sponsors, which he attests is the only way for the game to grow.
Salahuddin has also embarked on a top down approach for development, working to improve the first tier football league in the country, cryptically known as the Bangladesh League. “I agree that we need to focus on young players. But these young players first need to have to have something to look forward to. My vision for the Bangladesh League is for it to be something youngsters can look up to and say; I want to be [playing] there,” he says. But in Bangladesh, it’s always a case of easier said than done.
For whilst Salahuddin has managed to continue the top tier with some regularity, his claims of restarting the lower echelons of the game have so far yielded no results. For example, the Pioneer League, a transition tournament between semi-pro and professional football was intensely popular thirty years ago. It was also the breeding ground for many national team players. But attempts to resuscitate it, have so far failed. Salahuddin has visionary ideas but the fear is that execution has so far been sorely lacking due to numerous issues like a lack of accountability in the federation and pressure groups who work against the grain.
Also, big ideas do not necessitate big results and especially when it lacks a structure, things can go horribly wrong. Starting a school tournament is often tagged as development, but the truth is that the kids are afforded no proper coaching whatsoever. Hence, there is very little possibility for it to bear actual fruit. So, if development is to continue its meandering path, Salahuddin first needs to steady a furiously bobbing ship.
What should be most important for the BFF is to ensure the training of trainers. Coaching, at a young age, is the single most important criterion that is missing from the players who grow old but still retain poor habits that were not corrected at a younger age. But most importantly, many of the powers-that-be in the game has an acute inability to be self-critical. Hence, their approach is bull-headed and many refuse to see logic or alternative solutions to theirs. With cricket dominating the sporting fraternity in Bangladesh due to its international appeal and visibility, the fear is that such tunnel vision from the people who run the game, risks ruining the sport altogether. And that would be a real shame.
To understand why, we have to get back to the dustbowl of one of the few playgrounds in Dhaka. It takes me a while to get close enough to the kids indulging in their game. But at a break in play I manage to strike up a conversation and ask them who their favourite player is. “Kaka,” says the first, with no hesitation and a gap toothed grin. The other shakes his head immediately. “Argentina,” he mutters, barely audibly. “Messi is the best.” I smile, and they smile. For a moment we share a bond and I can’t help wonder how in a country of 160 million people, most of whom suffer from rampant poverty and rising inequality, the one tie that binds is football.
Our politics may differ, so may our income and consequently our living conditions, but our outlook on sport is the same; we all enjoy it and it gives us something to smile about. And for these street urchins in one of the few fields in the city, sometimes that is all they want. Sometimes it’s all we want too.