Football Under Spotlight

Take it from the legend

Every country has its own Pele or Maradona. The two living football legends are worshipped all over the world and Bangladesh is not an exception. But surprisingly, no footballer has ever been called the Pele or Maradona of Bangladesh. Rather, our country had their own answer to the greats: Salahuddin. An intelligent striker and exquisite ball-player, Kazi Salahuddin remains arguably the best footballer ever produced by the nation. His skill and showmanship could alone bring 20,000 people to the ground even in a match of less importance, which is unimaginable nowadays even in an Abahani-Mohammedan clash. To this day, he remains the only man to have played as a professional footballer. Now a businessman and vice-president of Bangladesh Football Federation, Salahuddin still manages to cut ties with the world on Saturdays and Sundays just to watch live football, a fact that gives just an idea about his love for the beautiful game. What made him a great and popular footballer, a successful and the highest paid coach ever (very few people know that he received more money in one season than the record payment for a footballer) or a visionary organiser, whose boldness can even influence the football hierarchy to listen to him? In an exclusive interview with Al Musabbir Sadi of The Daily Star Sport at his Gulshan residence, Salahuddin describes his life and love for football. Here are excerpts of the interview:

Daily Star(DS): How would you describe Salahuddin the footballer?
Kazi Salahuddin(KS): I was born in 1953, 23rd September. I have done my schooling at Shaheen School before moving to Dhaka College and Dhaka University. Started my career in first division for Wari in 1969. Moved to Mohammedan next year. In 1971, joined our War of Liberation by playing for the Swadhin Bangla Football Dal. From 1972, I played for Abahani till 1984.

From the Swadhin Bangla Dal, I played for the national team till 1983. I was captain in 1975 and '79. I spent 1975-76 in Hong Kong as a professional for Caroline Hill FC. I retired in 1984 and consider myself lucky to be top scorer for four seasons in Dhaka football and got more than 200 goals.

In 1985, I became the coach of Abahani and won all the tournaments we participated in that year. I have also won all the championships that are played here as coach and captain. In 1985 and 1988, I was coach of the national team. Unlike the playing days, my coaching career was on an off. I came and went out. After 1988, I completely left coaching but I was pursued by Abahani to come back in 1992 when we won the league title unbeaten with highest number of points. I went out again and in 1994, I was asked to take over Muktijoddha. They made a very good team for the first time but were not winning anything. I took the job for the Federation Cup and Muktijoddha won the trophy beating Abahani 3-2. That same tournament, when we were playing the semifinal against Mohammedan and leading 1-0 at halftime, I heard that my father has died. I left the ground and two days later came back for the final but I had given up coaching. It has been 11 years that I have been out of coaching and out of football too. Then I came back to the federation and got elected vice-president.

DS: How did it begun?
KS: I was introduced to football in school. Run by the Air Force, Shaheen School gave a lot of importance to sports. I was interested in athletics as well as cricket. When I entered sports, I made a commitment that I want to be a sportsman. From my young days I knew that I would go into business following in the footsteps of my father. So education sat back for a while. It started from school but I played my first match in the first division four days after my SSC exams.

DS: You have also played cricket at top level. Is it that you chose football because you were a better footballer?
KS: Not really. To be honest, I chose football because of the crowd. Despite spending millions and extensive television coverage behind cricket, you can not bring 50,000 fans to an Abahani-Mohammedan cricket match. In our time, we could not walk on the streets. We were like movie stars, pop stars and I enjoyed the glamour. I was more attracted to that plus I used to love play football. It was a challenge to me. Cricket was just a Sunday game to me where I spent some time with my friends. I did not even train with them. I went to the ground and played casually. I got a call from the national team twice in the 70s.

DS: Although you have devoted your football career to Abahani, you never played cricket for them. Your highest score happened to be against Abahani too.
KS: Yes, I made 96. I played cricket for Azad Boys Club because they were a better cricket team than Abahani. Players like Shamim Kabir, Tanna, Ashraful were playing for Azad. They always wanted me to be with them.

DS: We have seen many players of your generation competently playing two games, like football and cricket, hockey and football. But why is it rare now although players get more support for fitness or other things?
KS: For us, the whole 24 hours was for sport. It is now not a big factor except for a limited number of people. You have got clubs to go this to do, attend parties. It is difficult to take young boys to the ground. When we were growing up, if someone wanted to find us, the address was very simple: go to the nearest ground. Home was just a place where we could lay our bags after school and rush to play any game. The whole society has changed. Boys are distracted by things like computers etc. We held a school football tournament recently without much enthusiasm. But we always eagerly waited for another tournament to come. When rivals like St. Gregory's came to play us, the whole school took festive mood. Sport has become a secondary thing in the country. In my schooling days, I had never heard about politics. Of-course there was politics but it never bothered us. That was the reason many played two games simultaneously.

DS: How do you see generations of your time and now? We don't have skilled footballers like the past but we have won a few trophies recently. Can you compare?
KS: Success depends on many things. For example, football was very competitive in this part of the world. India had a great team. They were Asian Games champions but now, they don't even qualify. Why? Because the interest has gone and other teams have developed. We played against a lot of great teams. We used to play against teams like Turkey, Iran and Korea in the 70s, not against Nepal, Bhutan or Maldives. India and Pakistan are not also the teams they used to be that time.

We are winning championships playing against teams who have developed but had no entity during those days. So, you can not draw comparisons between different times. I would call it real success if we at least qualify for big Asian events. It is a very relative thing. You also have to see how the world goes. We are living in a corner. We don't even play Thailand. When we participated in a tournament like Merdeka Cup, our opponents were South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, China, Japan, Thailand, Hong Kong and Kuwait. We haven't played against teams of such quality in recent times.

Naturally, organisers would want to take the credit. Even I would have wanted to make it look like winning the World Cup had we won the SAFF Championship. But when you are asking me as a player to compare, this is my opinion of the past. You have to take some more things into consideration. Every one wants to say that his time was the best. I am no exception. But why are you talking to a man who has given up playing more than 20 years ago? You still remember names from two decades back. If people remember those who are playing now 15 years later, it would be an achievement.

A few days back, I was enthralled watching the funeral of George Best, the way people showed him respect because what he performed. A similar question like yours was raised during a match of Barcelona two days before Best's burial. A commentator was saying that 'Ronaldinho is today's George Best.' The other one replied, 'But George Best would have been double the amount of player Ronaldinho if he played now.'

By saying this, I don't want to cut down on present-day players by no means. Football is not bad today. Organisers are responsible for the situation. If you can't hold a league regularly, why blame players? Bangladesh went to defend their SAFF Championship title without playing any international matches in more than two years. What do you expect of the players? They are not super humans. We can not provide them the opportunity. You can not achieve anything in two days. We have to have the right thinking.

DS: Football was once the biggest sport in the country. But cricket has taken over…
KS: Comparing the situation with cricket is not justified. Cricket has taken over here by default. Bangladesh are playing Test cricket not because of they are a great team. It's because the ICC needs more teams. Television plays a big part because of India's presence. It's a big market for the multinational companies who want cricket to be televised throughout the day for their advertisements. So this is happening in this part of the world. It can't be compared with world football. In Europe, if you produce a midlevel footballer, his transfer fee would be enough to organise a cricket World Cup in our backyard.

DS: Our football, recently, has not produced a star. However, you were picked by a Hong Kong club after Bangladesh lost 9-1 to their national team in an international match. Why is this happening?
KS: You have to keep on playing. We can not provide this chance to the booters throughout the year. There are too many non-technical persons in charge of our football. People will return to the grounds if football is being played regularly at a particular place. Without the game being played, you won't get stars.

DS: You have some thoughts about introducing professional football?
KS: In the 70s, I attended a television programme where others suggested not sending the national team abroad because they were not doing well. I opposed the idea and said that players not only need exposure but also needs to come under a professional structure. China, not winning anything at that time, also decided not to send their national team abroad for five years. I mentioned that time that China was making one of the biggest mistakes. My fellow guests were calling me a madman for criticising China's policy. They also said about the Soviet Union, who did not have a professional structure. But the Soviet Union, a good team, never won anything big. When I said this, no body could answer me. Now what has happened to China or Russia? Haven't they gone professional? Small countries like Denmark and Belgium produce how many players? My concept was to follow Europe because it is the base of football. If you go professional, you'd be able to produce players. There is no place for friendship in football. An amateur coach can never be serious. But if he is answerable to his superior, he can not do this. In football, a coach, a player and an official will have to do everything religiously.

When the federation told me to take charge of introducing a professional setup, I agreed readily. It's very simple to me. The way the Dhaka League is being played, you just have to make slight adjustments. The first objection should come from the players because they will be paid monthly, not like they are taking the money now. It would take one to two years to settle the dust. It's just like you go to your office. You don't get paid for skipping office. If you want to get to the top, there is no place for fun. If anyone asks me how to become a footballer, I'd say you have to dedicate yourself. If you ask me again, I'd repeat the same words. Dedication is the only way up.

DS: What can be the future?
KS: We will need minimum five years to reach a stage because we lack a number of things. At number one is money. First you have to see whom you are fighting. If you can not spend one crore taka per year, how could you fight with a country which spends 100 crore? I still believe that we have the talent. If anyone needs 100 crore, we can do it with five percent of that amount. I was in Japan when they launched the J-League. They simply spent about Tk 18 crore to lit the streets. I don't even get 50 lakh for the national team's training. We need grounds and more facilities but if we have the money and the right planning, everything will fall into place. It doesn't have to be in Dhaka. If a player gets Tk 2-3 lakh per month, he will go anywhere to train. He will work hard.

You also have to have a professional organisation to run it. In the last 20 years, a handful of people -- who have Motijheel-based professions -- have been running the federation. When we propose something new at the board meeting, most of them say that 'we haven't done this before'. We had to even fight with these people when we wanted two pairs of boots for the players just because it was something that had not been done before. You can not run the show with people of this type of mentality, whose contribution I put to question. Apart from looking after themselves, what have they done for football? Things have gone too far now and I don't see any alternative of a professional setup. Also, the nation needs cooperation from the people and the press.

I am not like them, I am here because I love the game and love my nation. If I hadn't loved my nation I would have not gone to war at the age of 18. I had an option to go to London to study. Many people were sending their children abroad during the war and my father asked me what I wanted to do. He had supported me.

DS: You can not be separated from Abahani because of your involvement with the club. What are your memorable moments?
KS: Everyday was a memorable day. Because that's the kind of footballer I am. But if you ask me to mention something special, I'd say my finest moment in football was the day I retired. It was an Abahani-Mohammedan match. I took a lap of honour, starting in front of the Abahani gallery to the Mohammedan stands. I think there were 50,000 fans at the stadium. I got a standing ovation from Abahani but when I came to the Mohammedan side, they gave me a louder response than Abahani did. I feel it to be the greatest achievement because they were my, our, archrivals. I was playing against them for more than ten years.

I have played matches to remember but I feel I was at my best against Korea in 1975 in Kuala Lumpur. We lost 3-1 and I got a goal. In my personal opinion, that was my best match. Actually, I have enjoyed playing every match in my life.

DS: How was the time you spent in Hong Kong?
KS: It's a different world. I played against Hong Kong in the Merdeka Cup in August and I went to Hong Kong in September. Football was a whole different concept there. One incident will tell how serious it was. One of my friends came to Hong Kong from Dhaka and wanted to see me play. After the match, I took him to dinner and stayed the night at his hotel. I had an 8am warm-up session next morning for the FA Cup match. When I woke up, it was ten past seven. I hurried to the ground but I was an hour late. The manager asked me a lot of questions. He was worried because he found my phone at the apartment kept ringing. He told me that he was about to call the police, thinking something has happened to me. I said sorry and told him the truth. I was told to train at the gym that afternoon to make up the loss. I forgot all about it but when I was receiving my paycheck, there was 100 dollars short. When I queried about it, the manager was surprised. He called the secretary, who confirmed that everything was all right. The 100 dollars was cut because I missed that training. Even the make up was not enough. These are the reasons no player ever misses training or lies to skip it. We had an English player, Billie, who was in plasters for four weeks after cracking a shinbone. After he had returned from the hospital, he had to be at the training sessions every day. That is professionalism. I played more than 50 matches before I had to quit due to injury. I did not have treatment but continued playing to end the season. I came back to Dhaka and had my operation in London. My father did not allow me to go back to Hong Kong because my parents were alone then.

DS: You have been jailed for playing football. How does it hurt?
KS: I don't have any jerseys of the national team with me because I tore them apart while in prison. The only question that was bugging me was why I was there? I did not rob anyone or stole any thing. We four were charged for violence during an Abahani-Mohammedan match. I was talking with Mofazzal Karim (now High Commissioner to the UK) during the incident. I was waiting for the game to restart. Chunnu and I were in Jessore and the 17 days I spent in jail, the isolation was painful. But it really does not hurt me any more. Whatever happened, I forgot after the way people had welcomed us, showed respect when we came out.

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