The Tigers of London
London Tigers at Stamford Bridge.
It's a freezing January night in north London. The starry sky is cloudless and the floodlights illuminate the action unfolding at the London Colney ground in Hertfordshire. Arsenal train here sometimes, but tonight, it's all about non-league football.
It's London Tigers up against Colney Heath.
The field is sprinkled with family and friends of the players on show, but a few fanatics have turned up, even on a night like this, cheering on the players. I marvel at their dedication but the cold stops me from empathising.
“That jacket is not going to keep you warm,” says an old-timer. His prediction is prophetic. He is twice my size and seems padded up sensibly. In retrospect, my decision to go for cotton layers looks foolish. I crave my warm woollen jacket.
Out on the pitch though, only the gloves and steamy breath betray the perfectly kitted out players. London Tigers are in yellow, Colney are in blue. As we watch, the Colney left-winger streaks down the by-line. I feel like being out there for a second, but only a second. Because that's how long it takes for the Tigers right back to come sliding in, taking both ball and man and crashing into the mesh beyond the touchline. I squirm. The pace is fast, typically English.
“…and we thought we could give these guys a game?” says my friend, who too has battled the cold this evening. Just beyond the field lies the club house and the promise of elusive warmth. It doesn't help that the Mancunian derby is taking place. I catch fleeting glimpses of the game on the TV. Carlos Tevez scores and a murmur of approval goes around the ground. In these parts, the Red Devils are the common enemy.
“So you think these guys can play professionally in Bangladesh?” asks Mesba Ahmed. He is chief executive of the London Tigers and the reason we are here this evening. I am circumspect; these guys are semi-pros. But just then, the Tigers' number ten, turns his man, skips by one challenge and fires just wide from the edge of the area. I am forced to reconsider.
“That guy used to be an Angolan national team player. He has played in the African Cup of Nations. Nobody thought we could get him. But signing him was a big coup,” says Mesba. But then again, this is a man who has made a career out of doing what most said he couldn't.
Mesba is the brainchild behind the formation of the London Tigers and one of the main reasons why it has gained such popularity across the years. The Tigers started as an amateur football team in 1986. Today they are a social community club with bases in Westminster, Brent, Camden, Tower Hamlets and Chelsea. London mayor Boris Johnson is an honourable patron and Prime Minister Gordon Brown recently stated that London Tigers are “at the forefront of grassroots sports development across the UK.”
“We [London Tigers] focus on sports coaching, training and competitive game play as a gateway to sporting excellence and talent development,” says Mesba as the half-time whistle sounds. The players trudge back. It's 0-0 at the break.
“Our ultimate focus is on community development. We develop projects that take social exclusion using sport as a tool. Our target is towards, hard to reach groups such as the Black, Asian, Bangladeshi and other similar communities,” says Mesba as his team's manager barks out words of encouragement to the players.
Mesba Ahmed, Photo: Tausif Ahmad
With the action subsiding, the cold seems all-encompassing. I am glad when Mesba invites us inside for a hot drink.
London Tigers works in two ways, he tells me. “We use sport coaching, volunteering and training as a means to help local residents progress towards either employment or healthy lifestyle choices.”
But most of the players on show today, don't seem to be Asians. “No,” he agrees. But this is the other end of the spectrum. “We take our semi-professional side quite seriously. These guys train 5 times a week. A lot of the minority communities are not willing or able to make that sacrifice.”
Or are they just not talented enough, I ask?
Mesba refuses instantly. “No, a lot of our minorities are still pigeonholed into specific career choices and they value other things more than sport. It's a changing process and now we do have a few [Asians] in our team, as opposed to a few years ago.”
Mesba is confident, but for a guy who has been arranging and focusing on sport for the last twenty something years, he has a right to be. The key, he says is to just start playing and continue onwards. Everything else moves onwards from that.
Our thoughts turn to Bangladesh, just as the whistle sounds for the second half.
Mesba is very interested in the Bangladeshi football team. Especially, as the team is finally showing signs of life. He bemoans the fact that Bangladesh does not have a solid club or youth structure.
“London Tigers has 22 football teams ranging from Under 8s to the adults,” he says. “Every football club in Bangladesh should aim to develop that,” he says.
But the first step, he argues is to have a conduit to channel players who are interested to play the game towards the clubs. And the only way to do this is to make sure a lot of football is played.
“It's simple really, just get a field and start playing. Make sure tournaments are on, the whole year around, rain or shine. Have clubs scout these tournaments and players will come,” he says. His frustration is evident. He has tried pitching the idea to football high-ups. In most cases the response has been lukewarm. Most only seem interested in the formation of an academy.
“But that is so much in the future,” says Mesba. Just then, a cheer goes around the ground. It's bad news. Colney have taken the lead.
But Mesba continues unabated. He is interested to be involved in developing sport in Bangladesh in much the same way London Tigers have proved a productive outlet for British Bangladeshis.
“We have a lot of technical expertise and training facilities. And our model has already proved successful. We can replicate that in Bangladesh, if people are willing. Trust me, it will only lead to a more successful football team.”
An audible groan permeates our discussion. Mesba is smiling. The Tigers have equalised late. Since this is a Cup game, it's on to penalties.
We brave the cold to catch the drama. The teams trade the first three spot kicks, until the Tigers miss. It seems it's all over, but their goalkeeper pulls out two saves and they score. From the dead, the Tigers emerge victorious. Mesba is all smiles.
“It's a big win,” he says. “We are into the quarterfinals now.”
Buoyed on by the success, Mesba seems somewhat more optimistic. He is eager to help out in Bangladesh and the feeling in his arguments showcase just how much he wants to help out sports development in his homeland.
“London Tigers is a success story that I am very proud of. It's something that has been built from scratch and now holds an esteemed position in England.
“With just a little more effort, Bangladesh can have something similar.” But for that to succeed there needs to be less of bureaucracy and more fluidity in decision making processes, by the people in the position to make such decisions.
The changes are not major, but they are integral. Grassroots sport development has the opportunity to kick-off big in Bangladesh.
And when it does, London Tigers will be there to lead from the forefront, assures Mesba.
(To learn more about London Tigers, visit their website at www.londontigers.org)
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