Taking Football Seriously
Quazi Zulquarnain Islam
It is the early hours of the morning, well before the sun is out and the only noise than those of the chirping birds is of some kids engaging in a game of football at the Gulshan Youth field. In just a few hours, Gulshan Avenue will be teeming with activity but at five-thirty in the morning on this lovely July weekend, the youngsters playing football are the only thing threatening to break the tepid pall of silence.
Football’s significant fan following. Photo: Anisur rahman
It had rained the night before, and the wet surface seemed to provide added incentive to the teens fighting it out on the field. The game was six-a-side, the goalposts were merely sandaled boundaries thrown together on a whim, the touchline more assumed than marked and the penalty box absolutely unnecessary.
Only, the jerseys betrayed the severity of the situation. They were fancy; Spain's bright red seemingly the colour of choice. And as seems wont, at least one of the twelve on show was kitted out in Lionel Messi's Argentina colours.
Looking at these youngsters striving to recreate a somewhat less methodic version of the beautiful game, you would have to be foolish to ignore the impact of the World Cup on Bangladesh. Although (unfortunately), we as a nation are light years away from competing in football's premier competition, there is little or no doubt that after every major international football tournament, the interest level amongst the youngsters reach an absolute peak.
Photo: Anisur rahman
Jerseys sell like hot cakes and usual cricket spots are replaced with youngsters having a kickabout. Of course, all this is made much more simple by the fact that football is so easy to partake in. There is no need for bats, less of shoes, no special kits are required, nor is there need for a stack of bricks to substitute for a wicket.
All you need is a ball. Football's beauty is in its simplicity.
Which then begets the question, why is it a 'dying' sport here?
The answers are manifold. From the emergence of cricket to the lack of structure and finally to the lack of entertainment value attached to the sport in the country.
But it's worth harping on about what is wrong. What is more important though is how the Bangladesh Football Federation (BFF) is going about dealing with it.
The Kazi Salahuddin led BFF have brought about some major structural changes in his two years in office. From ensuring the continuity of the first professional league in the country to organising the money spinning Super Cup, Salahuddin has managed to bring in reforms aplenty. Not all have been pushed through, but the good thing is that the vision is there.
However, it has not all been smooth sailing for the national football legend. A number of his initiatives have failed to materialise and a few others have seen the light of day. Yet, two years into office, the ex-national striker remains confident.
“I have promised many things, and I will work to the best of my ability to implement all of that in the next two years,” he says.
One of these 'failed' initiatives is the national school championship, that had begun with much hullaballoo in 2009, but has so far been absent from the 2010 calendar. School championships were a huge reason behind cricket's phenomenal popularity in the early nineties. Ebbed on by a willing and supportive sponsor in Nirman, cricket reached the grassroots and embedded itself through the now almost legendary “Nirman School Cricket Championship.”
Why does football not do something similar?
“There are a few reasons for this,” says Salahuddin. “Firstly, one of the primary things for me to do was to drum up interest in the game amongst schools on a national level. School football happened but not at the scale that we wanted and since there is a inherent lack of fields these days, it makes things difficult. Also, there are numerous nefarious activities that take place in the school football level,” he adds.
“Numerous schools forget that physical education is a part of normal education. Many even ask for appearance fees. It is shocking. But this is the reality, and it has to change.”
The biggest challenge though, has been finding a sponsor like Nirman who will be consistently supportive.
“You need three things to succeed: vision, planning and then finance. Without the latter, you can only be a dreamer, not a harbinger of change,” says Salahuddin eloquently.
“This is why I spend most of my time chasing sponsors,” he admits. It is a vicious cycle though. Sponsors are more attracted to the events with maximum coverage. It is easy finding finance for events like the Super Cup. Grassroots development though is a different story altogether and Salahuddin admits that finding a sponsor to stick it through thick and thin has been the most challenging aspect of his job so far.
There is continuity in the B.League and the stadium was packed for the Super Cup. Photo: Anisur rahman
“I have seen many guests and experts speak on TV and urge me to bring about change. It is all big talk and I understand where they are coming from. But tell me this, has anyone told me of a single company who will be willing to finance my vision?” says Salahuddin.
The BFF president though, is grateful to those who have so far stepped forward to finance football in the country.
“I am grateful to all the sponsors so far. The game is run by sponsors. That is the truth. To appease them I have done many things that may have displeased journalists, but know that it was only for the good of the game,” says Salahuddin.
The curious question however is, why are sponsors not more interested in football? With the World Cup just past and interest in the beautiful game at its peak, the only barrier seems to be the lack of status that football enjoys in the country, as opposed to cricket.
According to Salahuddin, the BFF are aware of this and have worked to redress this balance.
“Top footballers in the B.League now earn about 20 lakh taka. It might not be much in international standards, but it certainly is a lot in terms of the average sportsperson income in the country,” he says.
But what is really holding the sport back is that football is still not marketed extensively as a product in Bangladesh; a key ingredient in its success both regionally and internationally. We still have no full-scale football stars and no one to look up to. In short, the value of marketing your product, which is ever important in this age of low media attention, has been entirely missing in Bangladesh.
Salahuddin admits that this is something they are struggling to replicate, but he cites how he managed to bring Sir Dave Richards, Chairman of the Premier League to Bangladesh in January.
Photo: Anisur rahman
“I established a personal relationship with Dave Richards. This was just so he could come and give our clubs an idea of how things are run in a wholly professional environment. We had individual sessions with the club, to drill into them the idea of marketing things better and properly. I am hopeful this will materialise soon.”
Overall, Salahuddin's tenure has been a mixed bag so far. But that is to be expected. Making reforms is never easy and many things take time to start up and execute. Results are often delayed. But the early signs are promising. Amateur football is thriving in the country; take a tour of the fields around the capital city, and you will likely run into throngs of youth playing the game they love.
“Change takes a while,” says Salahuddin. “But the money is coming in, and I want to make no excuses. Look at it this way. In the eight years preceding me, the BFF brought in sponsors worth 4 crore 30 lakh. In my two years so far, we have already brought in double that amount so far.”
And if the money flows in, Salahuddin's vision can become a reality.
Amateur Football on the Crest of a Wave
Photo: Zahedul I Khan
‘Football in Dhaka is thriving. The fields are full of players; some are really talented and the level of competition is immense.'
This is not a mistake, nor is it a cutout of some 1980s news report. This is also not a distant dream.
This for you is the football scene that I see emerging in the small grounds across Dhaka, where kids from the age of eleven till they reach the last year of university play one tournament after the other, with increasing enthusiasm for the game. They don't just play, they organise teams, manage grounds, set up goalposts, collect funds for tournaments, arrange trophies and make sure they take a picture in the end to keep a record of their joy.
Everyone I know in Dhaka has played in a football tournament in their growing up years, yet we have never seriously thought about taking it as a profession as we did with cricket. With cricket, the path was always well marked out: you play for your school or cricket academy, you do well, the scouts pick you for the age-level tournaments and then if you keep performing, you either make it to the various selections or you hit big time with a club in the second or first division; handle the pressure after that and a place in a big Premier League side is just around the corner.
Youngsters take their amateur football very seriously. Photo: Star Archives
Football, even in the prosperous 1980s, was a complicated route and after the cricket explosion of the late 1990s, it has taken a backseat that rapidly made its way outside the class so to speak.
But for the past 6-7 years, the kids have turned to football and after this summer's blockbuster World Cup, they are streaming into the fields wearing their favourite jerseys.
You walk into any of the grounds in Dhanmondi, Mohammadpur, Gulshan and Banani and you'll see that more than half the ground is taken up by football while the other half, of course, belongs to cricket.
These are underground tournaments (as they like to call it these days) and are usually participated by upto 30-35 teams and of course, some of the players are really good.
Reazur Rahman Rohan, a professional cricketer but who plays as an attacking midfielder in these tournaments, is playing three tournaments at the moment in Banani and Dhanmondi and is obviously taking them quite seriously.
“It is the off-season for cricket so I get a lot of opportunity to keep my fitness going with these tournaments. Plus there's a lot of competition between teams these days since the players are good,” says Rohan who mentioned several youngsters like Sharan, Danish, Akib and Safwan as ones for the future.
“Last year there was a talent hunt tournament organised by a local politician in Dhanmondi. They called me up for the trials but as I had my cricket season coming up. They will be holding one probably after Eid this year too,” he adds.
He also mentions the Soccer Knights, a team made up of almost the entire NSU football team, who are one of the better teams in the underground scene and some of them are good enough for the professional level.
Like Rohan, Fuad Bin Sajjad also does his bit as a rightback for Soccer Messiahs (don't be fooled by the names though, these are serious footballers).
Everywhere across the city parks are inundated with football tournaments following the WC fever. Photo: Zahedul i khan
According to Fuad, he has come across two players, a midfielder and a goalkeeper, who he thinks would have easily made it as a pro had a better career as a footballer was on offer.
“Mustafa Walid Sarwar Birol has amazing passing sense and good shooting power but he's 23 and he has already let go of a chance to go professional because of the structure's weakness. He had offers but as you know, football doesn't offer a good career,” says Fuad, who has also played Second Division Cricket.
Incidentally, Mustafa is the son of former national player and coach Golam Sarwar Tipu but even his illustrious background doesn't attract him to the Bangladesh League.
“Then there is Tanzir, who has left football now that he's working. He is one of the best goalkeeper in this scene and in one tournament in 2008, he saved seven penalties,” says Fuad.
The likes of Mustafa and Tanzir haven't exactly given up on a dream career as the Bangladesh League has little to offer for anyone other than the top twenty players in the country.
In fact, the yawning gap between professional football and the people is getting wider by the day. As Rohan mentions, the talent hunt would be alluring to budding footballers but it doesn't guarantee anything, as the clubs will just not be impressed with these talents.
Amer Khan, managing director of The Source (an event management firm), organises football tournaments for schools and universities and mentions how the holidays and exams have clashed with his plans for holding one. “The tournament will be held after Eid. All the schools are not opening at the right time or exams are still going on, so they need some time for preparation,” said Amer.
“It will still have enough enthusiasm and passion because the EPL (English Premier League) and (Spanish) La Liga will be starting by that time,” he adds.
Amer is also working with Bangladesh Football Federation (BFF) since his tournaments are quite unique in the sense that schools participate in them.
Some of these players are bursting with talent and need a proper stage. This can only be done by the BFF; it is high time they get serious and have a hand on the game's pulse.
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