On Friday Sylhet District Stadium turned into a virtual human sea during the international football friendly between Bangladesh U-23s and their Nepalese counterparts. It was a spectacle to behold, not because of the quality of the game but for the love for football among the people of the otherwise laidback north-eastern headquarters of the country. An unverified figure suggests that there were 25,000 packed into the stands and as many scrambled on the green top just outside the playing area after a break-in due to an influx of people.
Thankfully, there was no stampede, no violence and the game ended peacefully despite a defeat for the home side. And the talking point after the game obviously focused on two salient points -- the abject failure of the organisers regarding crowd management that could have easily led to human casualty, and on the brighter side the return of the soul of the game -- the spectators.
For someone who is now 25 and has watched it on television or from the ground, it is a first-of-a-kind experience. But for someone like yours truly who is fast approaching 50, the Sylhet panorama is like a blast from many beautiful pasts when football in this part of the world was a daily dose of energy, be it for a teen or an octogenarian.
It was one of those shiny afternoons in 1981 and Dhaka -- a less polluted and a less populated city then -- was bracing for yet another Abahani-Mohammedan derby. In those days there were quite a number of rules parents imposed on their school-going sons and the most noticeable one was a prohibition from the erstwhile Dhaka Stadium. But that was also an age when rules were meant to be broken. So, time to buy a cheaper Eastern Gallery ticket and stand in a long queue at least a couple of hours before the start of the match. And remember, you did not need to walk as the surrounding pressure from other football fanatics carried you to the stands through the narrow tunnels. But on that day this writer was suffocating in the tunnel before a kind pair of god-sent hands rescued him to the stands. With more than an hour to go before the schedule start of the game, the stands in the Big Bowl could not hold the constant influx of people any more and virtually vomited. The hapless spectators, huffing and puffing for fresh air, climbed over the barbed wire and braved the baton-wielding police before taking refuse on the green top. I don't know how I accomplished this virtual military exercise along with others on that day. But to be honest the moment I had jumped into the ground it felt like jumping into heaven from hell.
There were three other instances (that this writer can recall) when overflowing spectators entered the playing surface and watched games at this very ground. A league match between Abahani and BJMC; an Aga Khan Gold Cup match involving AIFF and an Iranian club side, and the famous India-Pakistan Asia Cup hockey final in 1985.
There was also a game played in Rajshai in 1992 where fans watched the Bangladesh U-19s fighting against their Indian counterparts sitting almost on the touchline.
Interestingly, all those games ended without any untoward incidents. But this chaotic state of affairs can only be found in a country where nothing functions in a disciplined and systematic fashion. Do not blame the fans; blame it on the people who love to play with the paying public for their own interests.
And as compelled gate-crasher of the past, I salute the latest brand because it is more about making a statement.