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Wednesday, June 11, 2008
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SAFF Championship 2008

It can't get any worse

Flashback April 3, 2006: Bangladesh-Guam 3:0.

It happens to be Bangladesh national football team's last victory in an international. How long do we have to wait for the next win since beating world football's nobody Guam in the inaugural AFC Challenge Cup match at home?

Not that we had the chance to put an end to this 26-month long lean patch but unimpressive shows against not-so-fancied Hong Kong, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Bhutan and Sri Lanka led to failure.

Whose failure? It remains the biggest question to be answered.

While South Asia's weakest team Bhutan play defending champions India in one of the two semifinals of the fifth SAFF Champion-ship this afternoon in Male (co-hosts Sri Lanka and Maldives play in other semi in the evening in Colombo), Bangladesh return home empty handed today from a winless campaign that takes the nation's football history to its lowest ebb.

The inaugural SAFF Cham-pionship in 1997 in Kathmandu saw Bangladesh bow out without a win and not making the semis but reaching the next three finals and winning in 2003 had established them as the second best team in South Asia behind India.

That doesn't count anymore.

Making coach Abu Yusuf the scapegoat would be the easiest way to shrug off responsibility for the newly elected Bangladesh Football Federation (BFF) executive body, which has taken charge for just over a month, but the root of the failure lies in some members of the incumbent committee who handled the national team poorly during the tenure of the last committee.

They simply did not care. They also did not prepare the team for their most important football tournament properly.

In a face-saving move, the BFF had appointed Syed Nayeemuddin last year but as soon as the SAFF was put back a few months, the football officials suddenly found the India coach -- who led his home side to win the 2005 SAFF Championship in Pakistan with a 2-0 victory over Bangladesh in the final -- expensive.

Nayeemuddin was sacked in October 2007 after four Nehru Cup matches in India, where his side even failed to beat lowly Cambodia, and the World Cup pre-qualifying fixtures against Tajikistan, who drew 1-1 in Dhaka and triumphed 5-0 in Dushanbe.

Football-less ness continued and the BFF woke up just two months before the SAFF, naming Abu Yusuf the coach.

To get out-of-action footballers in shape in such a short time for international standard itself is a challenging job and Yusuf made it difficult by picking up a very young and experienced side -- some of the players had not even played for top-level clubs in domestic football -- for the AFC Challenge Cup qualifiers and the SAFF.

Without any homework on the opposition, Yusuf's boys left for Central Asia and got the first shock when they survived a close call in a goalless draw against Afghanistan in the opening match of the Challenge Cup qualifiers.

Afghanistan did better by beating the hosts to reach the tournament proper while Bangladesh returned with a defeat to Kyrgyzstan, conceding two goals in the last seven minutes.

Although a highly ambitious Yusuf repeatedly claimed his side have the capability to play throughout the 90 minutes of a game in the same pace, no one was convinced. Without a playmaker or even a holding midfielder in the side, the team's young backline failed to cope with opposition pressure.

Perhaps he was building a team for future, ignoring the seniors over suspect fitness.

Under pressure, the former national defender picked up two senior players but even in the last group match, where Bangladesh needed to beat hosts Sri Lanka to reach the semifinals after frustrating draws against Bhutan (1-1) and Afghanistan (2-2), he ignored last season's top centre-back Nazrul. Besides Nazrul, Joy was also recalled and the midfielder, who got just 15 days to prepare for the event, proved in the first two matches that experience and skill do count.

Yusuf's nod rather went to Ariful, who deflected a harmless-looking shot into their own post to kill all hopes of Bangladesh against Sri Lanka. Not that Ariful is a bad player but he was responsible for conceding two goals against Syria and one against India in last year's Nehru Cup. He should have been given more time to mature for this level.

Yusuf's team was full of similar players, who in their first international season only exposed their inexperience and weakness to the rapidly improving oppositions.

Don't blame the coach or the players for not achieving the impossible because the team never looked to have the quality of going beyond the group stage.

Had the BFF needed to experiment with new faces, they should have started it earlier. Why suddenly before the SAFF, where one should take the best possible team?

This lack of planning has sunk the national team and also the domestic scene, where no football has been played for last ten months.

With the SA Games coming to Dhaka next year and another SAFF in two years, the BFF has to start from zero where the national team exactly stand now. It's time to wake up.

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