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     Volume 7 Issue 46 | November 21, 2008 |

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Cover Story

Missing the Spot

Quazi Zulquarnain Islam

Photo: Zahedul I Khan

179th in the world. A national team comprised of forgotten individuals. No grounds or youth structure to speak of and one woeful showing after another. Football in Bangladesh is at an all time low. Sinking into the quicksand even as we read this, can the 'beautiful game' be salvaged in this country full of football loving fans who have had nothing to smile about for years? Can it grow to be as big as cricket is now? These are questions that remain unanswered as new BFF President Kazi Salahuddin, a legendary player in his own right, attempts a rescue act to save football from extinction during these dark days. Will he be successful? Only time can tell.

Time remembered is grief forgotten-
Algernon Charles Swinburne

It would not really be stretching the truth if we were to say that football in Bangladesh is dead. Starting with a statement like that makes for pretty grim reading, but then again, that's exactly what the prognosis of the state of football in Bangladesh is -- grim.

These are disheartening times for the 'beautiful game' in our country. The giddy days fuelled by past successes in the South Asian region is very much a thing of the past. Titans like Kazi Salahuddin, Enayetuur Rahman and Monem Munna are long gone. Even the current generation of footballers is nearing the end of their shelf lives. Arman Miah and Alfaz Ahmed are grizzled veterans and bar one or two exciting players, no one is coming in to fill the gap.

The infrastructure is shoddy, there is a lack of framework and as a famous Brazilian footballer once said 'the administrators are from hell.' But even such dreary reading is merely the tip of the iceberg. The problems are far more deep-rooted. There is a lack of basic facilities, from fields to training institutions; there are almost no qualified coaches and marketing for football is at an all time low. Ironic, since the beautiful game has never been as chic as it is now.

TV channels constantly beam action from sunny Spain and rainy England with La Liga and the Premier League serving as constant fodder for chatter, everywhere from the office to home. Children from seven and over have probably stapled their hearts to a club of choice and football (at least at an amateur level) has quite possibly never been played as widely as it is now. So, why does Bangladesh still sit at the 179th position in the FIFA rankings, well behind South Asian rivals India and Pakistan? Just to give you some perspective: Lesotho and Seychelles are ranked higher than us. And to add more despair to that, though it must be mentioned there are only 200 teams in the rankings, a fall if it comes, will not be too deep.

Empty stadiums and shoddy facilities are prevalent across the country. The issue of grounds needs to be urgently pursued. Photo: Star File

Is there an inherent lack of talent? Or depth? Or is the lack of institutional support solely to blame? On the surface, we have the basic requirements for a moderately successful football team. We have a large population (160 million), most of whom are interested in the game. Aside from that football is being played, albeit amateurishly, almost all over the country and finally there is an inherent interest in the game and its TV coverage. We sorely lack a system that can channel all those resources into something substantive. Administrators have come and gone, but almost all have failed to find the right mix of all those qualities in to a workable system. Alongside that, there is a severe shortage of playable fields around the country, a shaky professional structure, and almost no perceivable backward linkage for clubs such as talent hunts and youth schemes for up and coming players.

Bangladesh Krira Shikkha Protishtan (BKSP) remains the sole institution focused on sport and even they rate cricket as more important than football. There are no targeted academies dedicated solely for those who want to play football, and most importantly, even the leagues are notoriously erratic. The hugely popular Pioneer League, which was the breeding ground for many a fine talent even twenty years ago, remained dysfunctional until early last year when it was finally restarted. The first and second division tournaments take place only sporadically and while zonal football is still practiced far and wide, there needs to be an urgent revamp of the current conditions.

Football is popular at all age-levels. Photo: Zahedul I Khan

The task for the current football administrators has never been tougher. But for BFF President Kazi Salahuddin, the current scenario, while shocking, still presents him and his team with an opportunity. “I cannot agree more that the current state of the game in our country is stagnant,” he says. Salahuddin adds, “But we have to remember that this presents us with a perfect opportunity to pull out a rescue act." It is something, the former national striker is confident of doing, and all he asks for from the football-starved public is some time to work things out. The president says, “All I ask from the people is patience. I am more than confident that in two years we will have a basic launching pad set to propel the game to new heights. This is my promise to the nation.”

Those are big words coming from a man in his position, but Salahuddin is prepared to substantiate his claims with solid groundwork. “Setting up the B. League is the first priority and I will move on from there,” he says. His plan for development are inherently European and would not look out of place in Clairefontaine, but Salahuddin is confident of its execution if he receives proper support from the public and people in the right places. Already his famous powers of persuasion are at work and his vision has inspired CityCell to invest a record amount into football. Periodic training camps are being set up across the country and scouting missions to scope out gifted players are already underway.

There is also a broad plan to execute an 'American Idol' style search for talent across the nation, whereby players can come to open trials held at the district level and then be invited to regional training camps. However, the efforts being talked of are merely baby steps in the broader goal of development. If indeed we are to (re)establish ourselves as a regional (South-Asian) power, other steps are required as well. The proper management of available facilities is also a must. The shoddy quality of TV productions that show B. League matches must be changed. Games must be held on weekends with proper production teams, good commentators and insightful experts to help provide the viewers with a well-rounded program.

Games must move out of the centrally dominated Bangabandhu National Stadium and try to tap into the interest in other areas of the country. Dedicated sponsorship is another key requirement. CityCell critically needs to stay on board and not abandon a project that they have helped to launch. Another crucial point that also needs to be addressed is the necessity of a strong club structure. Every nation that has been successful in football has had a club structure and has been strengthened over a number of years. While powerhouses like Abahani and Mohammadan still dominate the footballing agenda, none of them fulfill the requirements to even be a third-tier Asian club. There are no training facilities available and worst of all, no youth structure from where they can pick and groom their talent. AFC President Mohammad bin Hammam addressed this issue in a meeting with the BFF in March earlier this year, where he stressed the necessity of actively participating clubs to be forced to adhere to this backward linked structure. It allows every youngster playing the game at any level a conduit into professional football, without having to play in every conceivable division, a problem that holds back the development of many a talented player.

Young strikers like Zahid Hasan Emily will be our torchbearers
for the future. Photo: Star File

Also to be noted is the proper channeling of funds that Bangladesh receives as part of FIFA's Goal and Vision Asia project (which will soon amount to an astro-turf all weather football field for Bangladesh). Further down the line the establishment of a fully dedicated football academy is of paramount importance to nurture young players from around the country. But all that is still distinctively in the future. As of now, the dark days of football are still with us. These are challenging times for the 'beautiful game' in our country and urgent root and branch analysis needs to be undertaken to solve these problems. Kazi Salahuddin and co. have their hands full and their work cut out for themselves.

Young players may want to turn pro but find their transition hindered by a lack of framework. Photo: Zahedul I Khan

The quote from a Victorian poet at the beginning may seem strange and out of place but nothing best describes the current situation. These are times of grief for the football fraternity but if the necessary interventions are encouraged at the correct moment, the future will only be used to forget the grief that we currently suffer from.

Football's Lifebuoy

In every post-apocalyptic story one is painted a picture of a dilapidated world full of obscure monuments, with one man plying through the rubble searching in vain for a solution to stop the death of his world. Put that scenario into the context of Bangladeshi football and you have football as that post-apocalyptic world, the players as the obscure monuments and the current Bangladesh Football Federation (BFF) President Kazi Salahuddin as that man looking for a solution. And looking for a solution he is. An elegant striker in his heyday, Salahuddin once graced the same pitch with legends such as Gerd Mueller and the iconic Kaiser, Franz Beckenbauer when playing for a Hong Kong Foreign XI vs Bayern Munich in the mid-seventies.

Well-known around the country for his (in)famous Lifebuoy commercials, the astute Salahuddin can yet make his biggest contribution to Bangladesh football, albeit surprisingly off the pitch. Coming into power after being elected President of the Banlgadesh Football Federation in April 2008, he has immediately made some well-articulated moves; chief amongst them was is the successful continuation of the much-vaunted B. League.Many thought the professional league set-up might have been discontinued but Salahuddin made sure of its continuation.“It's imperative that we get the professional league up and running in our country. It should be our first and foremost priority,” he says. But in a country with a lack of youthful footballing talent, isn't that a case of putting the cart before the horse?

Salahuddin thinks not, “I agree that we need to focus on young players. But these young players first need to have to have something to look forward to. My vision for the B. League is for it to be something youngsters can look up to and say; I want to be (playing) there.” And he has plans for the youngsters as well.“I have plans to re-start the school and district league this year. We need to get as many people playing football as possible,” he says stressing the need for a comprehensive framework.

BFF president Kazi Salahuddin has started building bridges. How much of an impact will he have? Photo: Star File

So, what of the talent that may come out of these leagues? Salahuddin plans to implement the help of professional scouts to identify gifted players. The pool will then, as has been done recently, be sent to residential camps to hone their skills. The thought process is inherently European but the key question is more on the finance of the dying sport. “In this regard let me extend my heartfelt gratitude for CityCell,” says Salahuddin as he continues, “The fact that they trusted in my vision enough to invest unparalleled amounts, shows far-sightedness.”At the end of the day, Salahuddin is humble enough to admit that radical change might yet take some time. His two-year plan sounds eternally optimistic but he is confident enough to push for it. “I am not a magician,” he says, “but I am a technician and I am also known as a man of my word. I can promise you that football in Bangladesh is going to get better. All you have to do is be patient.” We wait with bated breath.

Five points to fix football

Backward linkage for all clubs
It's imperative to have a strong club structure, which allows nurturing of talent from an Under-10 level, through youth teams. Banking on one sports school in BKSP is not enough.

Proper marketing of B. League
The Indian Football League, is now quite popular thanks to positive marketing financed mostly by Zee network. A dedicated sports network of the like would do wonders for the first tier of the Bangladeshi sport.

Unyielding sponsorship
CityCell's bravado while investing in a largely dormant sport is indeed commendable. But we need more sponsorship floating in. Age group, school/college and regional tournaments are just some of the things that they can encourage.

Proper administration
The Salahuddin-led panel is just in its infancy. If it can reduce the red-tape, get rid of stragglers and interest groups, there is a good chance the group will be remembered as the ones who made the difference in years to come.

A fully dedicated football academy
Going forward, it is essential to have a football academy with proper coaches, dieticians, a wide-ranging scouting system and a solid administration. Youngsters from the age-group level of seven and over should all be given the opportunity to try out for the academy.

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