Football Under Spotlight
Organisers wake up
Golam Sarwar Tipu
Like any other child of my generation, who was inspired by their parents to go the field to pass time, I started playing football in the afternoons. Not only football, any game attracted me. When I was not kicking a ball, we did running and jumping. I did not enjoy cricket much because a very handful of boys were playing that game in those days.
We lived in a rented house in Tejgaon. We had to travel a lot because my father was a government official. My first chance to watch a real football match came in 1956. It seems like yesterday. My maternal uncle, a medical student, knew about my passion for sports and asked me to accompany him to the Dhaka Stadium.
The journey from Farmgate cost the two of us about four anas. Till that day, I had no idea what a stadium looked like. Even when we were approaching the stadium, I could not realise where the ground really was. I was looking for it when my uncle took me inside a concrete structure. I had no idea that it could hide a big ground. There was no barbed-wire fencing then and after a short while, I saw the lush green. The gallery was one-storied and we sat in the western side. The experience of sitting in the stands in front of the ground was enough for a ten-year-old to fall in love at first sight.
While I watched with awe, my uncle was talking with his friends. Suddenly, I saw three men clad in black emerge from the south side where the VIP stand now is. It was also one-storied then. Before I could ask any questions, my uncle told me who they were and what their responsibilities were. He also added that play was about to begin. As I was waiting eagerly, the bright red and yellow colours of Azad Sporting Club flashed in front as the players entered the ground in a single file. Every one wearing the same shirt, shorts and socks was something I had never seen before. Maybe to inspire me about not ignoring my studies, my uncle informed me that all the Azad footballers were either college students or studied at the Dhaka University.
Even when men in black and white arrived at the ground a minute or so later, I was seeing red and yellow all around me. My uncle got me back to reality and told that the new men were Mohammedan. I suddenly realised that the people who have come to watch the match, were cheering their favourite team. The match began but the disciplined entry by the red-yellow made an everlasting impact on me. I was supporting them because I was attracted to them. I did not know the players and it was my guardian who told me names of the stars. I can only remember Gaznabi, Kabir, Ashraf who were playing for Mohammedan and Ranjit Das, the Azad goalkeeper, and Maree.
I was impressed by Ranjit's dress and his movement. He was short, but very fair and really smart. Unlike other goalkeepers of that time (as far as I knew) who used to just stand under the bar, he moved with grace. He was totally different. Maree was another whose body manoeuvring was artistic. It seemed that he could dodge a player from a distance, did not have to go close to the body. He was also the only one in the Azad attack who tested the rival goalkeeper constantly from long range.
Naturally, I loved his individual exploits as a young spectator. Later, I came to know that Bhulu, Habib and Ejaj Rasool were also playing for Azad, but those two became my first heroes.
I can't recollect who was in the Mohammedan goal but I remember that one defender was taking long shots and was shouting instructions now and again. He was Gaznabi, who looked like a leader to me. I also saw a very diminutive guy in the midfield, Fazlur Rahman Arzoo. I thought, if this man could play so good, why can't I play here? The two forwards, Ashraf and Kabir, were also impressive. Kabir's controlling and receiving were superb as well as stylish. Ashraf could shoot from any angle or position.
The first match at the Dhaka Stadium, which I took to be the only stadium in the world as any other Class V student would do in the absence of television or any sports coverage on papers, was my first step toward becoming a footballer. I just wanted to play at that beautiful ground.
My next visit to the Dhaka Stadium was in 1957 during the Pakistan National Championship. All five provinces, Railway, Services and an additional team from the host province made up the knockout competition. We had East Pakistan White and Green teams. But people here used to call them Dhaka Green and Dhaka White. Shaheb Ali, left-back, led the Green team. Zahir was also was in the side. Habib, now a chartered accountant, was one of the forwards. I did not see the Green team play but I saw all four matches of the Whites because my uncle was interested in them. Zahir, Eugene were top level players who lived in our neighbourhood and all spent their evenings at the then First Division club Tejgaon Friends Union. We personally knew them and my uncle thought that the Whites were the better side. How right he was!
The first match was against Railway which we won easily with Ashraf scoring twice. I am telling this all from my memory because we did not have newspapers reports on the next day to confirm all information. The second match was against Sindh Karachi, full of Makrani players who used to play in Kolkata, Bombay. I know Eugene was concerned before the match. I was afraid too but they conceded five goals.
I can still vividly remember the eleven -- which meant eleven because no substitution was allowed. Ranjit at goal, Gaznabi rightback, Eugene at left, right-half was Shamsu of Bogra (not the centre-forward Shamsu), centre-half Nabi Chowdhury and Arzoo was the left-half. Rashid Chunna was playing right-out, Kabir was right-in, Ashraf centre-forward, captain Maree left-in and Shah Alam left-out. Before the final, the same eleven played every match, so I still do not know who the other members of the squad were except Mukta of Azad.
There was some incident during the semifinal against Baloochistan. People became furious after a decision by the referee and even the outsiders joined them, hurling missiles from the streets. There was no shortage of ammunition because of nearby construction sites. I don't remember what the result was then, but the match was abandoned. We won the replay comfortably 2-0. In the final against Punjab, the stadium erupted with spectators.
Remember, this had happened when Dhaka was still not populated. We did not have electricity in the whole Tejgaon area. Dhaka Club was the real limit of the city and the road that we used to reach Tejgaon through Karwan Bazar always seemed like a dark tunnel after sundown. We had only an ordinary tea stall and a grocery shop in Farmgate. This small town came alive centring the match and people had to sit inside the ground. Punjab simply refused to play and all efforts to push the fans back and start the match went in vain as time ran out. Finally, to calm the huge crowd, a 30-minute exhibition match was held and the home team received a blow when Ashraf was injured.
In the replay, Mukta played in place of Ashraf and we lost the match 2-1. What surprised me most were the tears of the local fans and players like Gaznabi, Kabir, Shah Alam and Arzoo. Most were speechless, Ashraf was standing with a plaster. That was a time when I watched keenly how Maree wore his shorts, how Ashraf folded the sleeve of his shirt and always tried to imitate those things the stars did. That was also the first time I realised that football could make people cry; it was a passion that brings all your emotions out of you and not just kicking the ball in the local ground. After seeing this, there was no coming back for me.
In 1958, Dhaka Moha-mmedan lost in the Agha Khan Gold Cup to Kiyamari Mohammedan of Karachi. I saw one match in that very big tournament. Meanwhile, our local team Tejgaon Friends were relegated from the First Division. By that time, I became a regular spectator. Ranjit, Zahir, Eugene, Anwar were very close to my father, who organised a drama at the Tejgaon Polytechnique School for fund raising. They used to see me play and had requested my father to buy me a boot.
In 1963, I first played for Tejgaon in the Second Division. Next year, I was playing First Division football. The big teams used to play in the inner stadium and the others at the outer stadium -- the ground in from of the DIT building. My first match was at the outer stadium for EPG Press (later BG Press). Chunna worked for EPG Press and he picked me. I joined Wari in 1965, played for Rahmatganj in '66 and Victoria in '67 before joining Mohammedan next year.
We had to trust friends and colleagues to know how we played in those days because there was nothing much written in the papers, which hardly printed the result and the name of the scorer(s).
By the time I was playing for the Black and Whites, the red-yellow impression was fading because of my proximity to most of the Mohammedan footballers, especially my idols, Ranjit, Ashraf and Kabir who were called a 'trio'. They were not only good friends but their understanding was so good on and off the field that they set a remarkable example of team work.
After the 1965 Indo-Pak War, the Indonesian Navy team visited here to play the East Pakistan side. During the off-season, the Makrani players, who dominated the local scene, left Dhaka and there was a shortage of players. I was picked for the squad then. In 1967, Shantoo and I got into the Pakistani national team together and both were dropped after the 1970 trials in Lahore. I first played for Pakistan in December '67, (Zakaria) Pintu played in 1969 and Hafizuddin (Ahmed) played in 1967. Debinash (Sangma), who died a few months earlier, played in 1963.
Representation in the national side from East Pakistan was very few and the competition was really tough. We had to pass so many tests and prove our worth. I think many Bangalee players, who were able to play, were victims of discrimination.
I still think that the Bangalee footballers' biggest contribution to the nation was their direct involvement in our Liberation War. Nowhere in the world would you find such an example of athletes being involved with their 'own weapon'. I have many regrets in my life but my biggest sorrow is to be not a part of the Swadhin Bangla Football Dal. I won't give any excuse or try to explain it but I will never forget the pain for not being able to join the team. I salute the members of the team from my heart but I still envy each of them.
Most of the footballers were playing for some time but their exposure after the Indepen-dence was a big boost for our football. Players like Enayet, Salahuddin, Ashraf who changed his position, Nawsher, Kaikobad who became a totally different player, were household names. But the real stars were Enayet and Salahuddin.
In March 1972, there was an exhibition match between the President's XI and the Prime Minister's XI. The Swadhin Bangla Football Dal played for Bangabandhu's Prime Minister XI and people like me who could not join the Liberation War, played for President Abu Sayeed Chowdhury's President XI. It was the first time the ball rolled at the Dhaka Stadium after 1971.
My consolation was to score the first goal in the first football match in the independent country. Gafur, most probably, scored the other goal in our 2-0 win.
That same year, Kolkata giants Mohun Bagan visited here to play two matches, against Mohammeda and Dhaka XI, in Dhaka, and one in Khulna. Mohammedan lost but Dhaka XI beat them 1-0 through a brilliant strike by Salahuddin. That was the rise of a new star. And with him we had good old Enayet. Then there were Abahani, where I also played beside Salahuddin before returning to Mohammedan again.
The new sensation (Abahani) gave us magnificent stars like Nannu, Manju, Chunnu, Tutul and many more. These footballers in the 70s and early 80s were technically sound and individually brilliant. We actually could not give them the tactical behaviour or the support they needed to make a great team. That is why we did not have any success at international level despite having so many talented players.
I don't know the reasons but we just wasted a generation. Our successes came in regional tournaments, which have been introduced lately but then, our teams had to face much stronger teams in tournaments like Merdeka Cup, Asian Cup or Asian Games. We really did not have the preparation for matching the top teams of the continent then. We never expected that but we could have played better than conceding huge defeats if we had the support. We did not have a vision then and I am not sure whether we have it even now. Our preparation is still tournaments based, 15 or 20 days or sometimes just more.
The federation has brought a trainer with our current football coach. It was unthinkable in our days. Then, there was someone who would take care of the cooking in the camp. The coach would come in the morning or afternoon during training. After that, what the players were doing, whether they stayed in camp or not, no one bothered to know. There was no logistic support. If we asked for 20 footballs for 20 players, the organisers would come with five and tell us to do with that. The selection procedure was also unfair sometimes. Sometimes the officials are more interested about selecting team managers ahead of development of the game as we have seen very recently.
The players of the past were more skilled and talented individually than the present ones. However, I would salute this generation for achieving the results which we never had. The SAF Games triumph under Jewel Rana or the SAFF Championship victory under Rajani are great achievements. As a team, the present team have been playing much better than the times of Salahuddin, whose popularity was sky-high and Enayet, who was called the 'Guru'.
But often, I face questions from them why I have not kept current players in my Bangladesh Dream Team. This is imaginary because I cannot field players together from different times. The current ones are ahead in team work, but not in individual skill.
Despite having football artists, we lost by big margins in the 70s and 80s unlike the present. We have even conceded nine goals in a match. We lacked the tactical behaviour. Players did not know what their responsibilities were because no one had told them. If we could produce results in the past, the craze for football would have not died.
This is the crisis we are facing now. We simply won nothing despite playing better brand of football from '73-78. Now I think that if Dhaka Whites had won the championship in 1957, or Salahuddin and Enayet had trophies to their names, it would have been a different story. They could have showed us the dream.
But now, the game is dying. The number of back-up players have been reduced since the 70s and 80s. There are no second string footballers waiting. Once we produced left-back after left-back -- Rakib, Swapan, Johny, Munna, Masud Rana. Alfaz is out of the national team now, can you think about a proper replacement? Definitely someone will play but is there any second choice to him? One of the reasons behind the crisis is that there is virtually no football outside Dhaka. We used play outside the capital often, in places like Mymensingh, Comilla, Khulna, Barisal, Rajshahi and so on. These places are not producing footballers like in the past.
The supply line has totally dried up. I am against the 'one player one league' formula. When this system was introduced, the leagues outside the capital have lost their appeal because the stars won't go to play there. At the same time, Khulna had players like Aslam, Salam Murshedi, Joshi, Prashanta but when they chose to play in Dhaka, people turned down. In a country where professionalism is a far cry, this policy is not acceptable. We have to select a route first.
The way football is going, if someone asks one day who is Tipu or who are Salahuddin or Enayet, I would not be surprised. We, players, might be partly responsible for not taking football to a certain stage because we did not play well. But I would not restrict myself from saying that organisers have really let the game down due to lack of vision and commitment.
We are crying for democracy but if you look at the councillors who voted in the election of the Bangladesh Football Federation, how many real organisers would you find? There are people in the federation's executive committee who have kicked a ball in his lifetime?
don't want this type of democracy. Organisers must think hard because talking about Vision Asia or Vision Bangladesh won't do any good if you are not practising the FIFA statutes. There has been a row over selecting managers recently but which football team needs a manager? The coach is the boss everywhere. I am still coaching and I think all a coach needs is a helping hand, nothing more. Time has come for organisers to act.
About the author: Golam Sarwar Tipu is a former national footballer and coach.