As the sixth edition of the professional football league, the Bangladesh Premier League, kicks off today with the match between defending champions Abahani and Feni Soccer Club at the Bangabandhu National Stadium (BNS), there is a new wave of enthusiasm and expectation among the organisers, clubs and players.
That enthusiasm; emanating from a willingness to compete in earnest, an effort to decentralise the game, a desire to nurture home-grown talents, and a tendency to compensate the players for what they are worth -- has certainly been channelled on to the ground. The Federation Cup, the curtain-raiser for the season, showcased the increasing quality and competitiveness of the game. If the Federation Cup is as a sign of things to come, the Premier League should be an exciting and entertaining footballing experience.
The league this time is down to nine teams which means there will be 16 round of matches for each team, unlike 20 last season, which should make it less exhaustive for the players, and more absorbing for the followers. BNS is home to seven of the teams while the remaining two will have their base in Feni and Gopalganj.
What should make the title race interesting is the fact that there are as many as five teams who are real contenders for the title. Federation Cup winners Sheikh Russel appear to be the strongest side on paper, but not far behind are Sheikh Sheikh Jamal DC who have a very balanced side. Four-time winners Abahani have the experience and the winning habit which will make it difficult for others to wrestle away the title. Mohammedan SC have a rejuvenated squad and an array of specialist coaches. Team BJMC are the dark horses. With good foreign recruits, they might sneak in for the title.
Like the championship race, the battle to avoid relegation is expected to be a close-fought one as there are no whipping boys this time. Runners-up in previous two seasons Muktijoddha Sangsad, have been much weakened by the exodus of its star players, fallen giants Brothers Union, Arambagh KC and Feni SC – any of these four might end up on the wrong side of the spectrum even if they retain the potential to upset the big boys on their day.
In terms of player impact there has been a sign of a shift this time with the Federation Cup. Zahid Hasan Emily, the national striker has ended years of domination of the foreigners in the goalscoring chart by scoring seven goals. Some of the other players of the national side and the U-23 side have been impressive as well, not to mention talented winger Zahid Hossain. But still the foreigners are expected to have a big say in scoring and ultimately deciding the title.
There have been changes at the coach's position too. Abahani have replaced their title-delivering coach Ali Akbar with his compatriot Ardeshir Pournimat who has a great understanding of the game from a technical point of view, but his coaching skills are yet to be tested. Sheikh Jamal have promoted Joseph Afusi from assistant to full coach. The Nigerian has been impressive in his first assignment in Federation Cup, but the league remains a far bigger challenge. Sheikh Russel and Mohammedan have proven mentors in Maruful Haque and Saiful Bari Titu, who would want to use all experience and local knowledge to win the title. In the end the title race may well be decided by the shrewdness of these coaches.