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|Volume 11 |Issue 25| June 22, 2012 ||
For the Love of the Game
Europe may be 10,000km away but for many
football fans in the country, expatriates and
"I'm a huge Germany fan,” says football fanatic Rashed, who has never travelled further than Kolkata. Sitting in front of a television with three friends shortly after half past midnight, the 18-year-old explains, “My dad spent a few years there in the '80s so I guess I feel connected that way.” Within minutes he loses interest in talking, his attention fully fixed on the Germany – Denmark game about to kick off. He adds, barely apologetically, “We've definitely qualified [for the quarter-finals of the European Championships 2012] but I still want to watch the game.”
Rashed is only one of millions following football at a national and international level outside of Bangladesh. During the FIFA World Cup in 2010, held in South Africa, flags and football shirts were sold on the streets in surplus and shops were asked to close early so there wouldn't be an overload on the power supply as fans watched from their homes. Some fans even took to the streets in anger after their favourite team Brazil lost to runners-up Netherlands in the quarter-finals. Other major national favourites include Argentina, Italy, Germany, England and Spain.
As Rashed sits fixated on one of the final Group B matches in this year's Union of European Football Association (UEFA) Championships, his school friend Wasif explains why he thinks this year's international tournament is different from when Bangladesh went fanatic for the World Cup. “Obviously some of the big favourites from South America aren't involved in the Euros, so that cuts the number of those interested,” says the England supporter as he steals glances at the television screen. “But the Euros break up that four year wait until the next World Cup so no real football fan wouldn't take an interest. I'd say there's been a lot more interest in the UEFA European Championships from younger people at least.”
One such young supporter is Najmul Karim, who has been rooting for Italy ever since he was five years old. “My brother supported Brazil in the 1994 World Cup final against Italy so I just had to support the opposing team,” he says. His preference was cemented a few years later when the two brothers bought a Nintendo games console and the FIFA World Cup game but were unable to master the settings. “We couldn't work out how to change the default teams so we'd keep playing the same teams, he would be Brazil and I would be Italy,” he says.
While Bangladeshi football fans may have adopted a European country to support, there are more than a thousand Europeans living in the country's capital who, despite being far from home, have been passionately following the games. Directors of international organisations, fashion designers, and research interns alike have been standing together in front of projector screens moaning and cheering at the footwork of their football teams. Half a dozen expatriate clubs have been showing the games late at night (due to the time difference) for members and their guests, and depending on the game, the atmosphere has been tense and thrilling.
For Marie and Miguel, a young couple from Denmark and Portugal respectively, the Group game that saw their two countries face each other was acutely heartbreaking for the losing party. Portugal went on to win 3–2 in what was possibly one of the best games of the tournament. The header by Pepe and Postiga's close-range goal put Portugal ahead for much of the game until Bendtner's two headed goals gave the Danes the chance to equalise. Watching at the Dutch Club, Portuguese supporters wearing large green and red hats and scarves jumped to their feet as Varela stole the game for Portugal with a goal at the 87th minute. The noise and cheer was overwhelming.
“I don't normally care about football, but when it's national games, it's great to watch for the atmosphere,” says Miguel, obviously pleased with the result. “There isn't a real rivalry between Marie and I.” Or so he thought at the time.
Three days later, and the defeat was still sore for Marie, who had been riled up by particularly vocal Portuguese supporters. “I couldn't sit with Miguel anymore because [Portuguese supporters next to Miguel] were so passionate and almost aggressive,” says Marie, who was sad Denmark could not make it out of the Group stage.
While Marie and Miguel have not let the football result create bad blood (or language) between them, other foreigners have not been so gracious. Countries such as France, Greece and Spain do not have expatriate clubs in Bangladesh, forcing their football supporters to sometimes cross enemy lines. For example, in the Bagha Club (primarily for Britons), French supporters sat at a safe distance at the back of the terrace during the England – France game that saw the two countries equalise 1–1.
During half-time, one England supporter at the bar pricked his ears at the words “Vive la France” spoken between two continental friends. Despite not knowing them or the context of the conversation, the Englishman instructed them, not so politely, to go find the French Club. “But there is no French Club,” said one of the friends, who was supporting England, confused at the suggestion. Red faced, the English supporter retorted, “Exactly, get lost then.”
However, such instances of rudeness have been few and momentary. A handful of Germans watched the Netherlands – Germany game at the Dutch Club and while the result was important for both sides, supporters were competitive but civil.
By the time this article goes to print, the first night of quarter-finals will have taken place. In a matter of weeks, the tournament and the tension it brings international friends in Bangladesh will be over. Any supporter, Bangladeshi or foreign, will tell you the stakes are high no matter where the games are being watched from, be it in the Polish stadium or in the Bangladeshi living room. Though, one of the great things about watching any international tournament in Bangladesh is that it is one of the few places in the world that embraces the idea of supporting far away countries as if it were their own.