The Bangladesh media contingent in Russia for the 2018 World Cup seems quite large when considering that the journalists hail from a non-participating nation. Understandably though, members of the group supported two South American teams, either Brazil or Argentina, both of whom have a massive fan following in Bangladesh. And this fact is also something that the Brazilian and Argentine fans, as well as their travelling reporters, are well aware of. Even if you come across a France, Uruguay, Germany or Mexico fan they will instantly acknowledge that the Selecao and Albiceleste have a strong fan base in Bangladesh.
The most frequent questions any fan or journalist may ask us after a brief conversation are: how popular is football in Bangladesh? Is it the number one sport in your country? Which are the most popular teams?
Our inevitable answer is that 'it was very popular once and there were two outfits that were the most renowned'.
That of course elicited the query about what the number one sport is now. And our even more obvious answer was cricket. The moment you respond most pause for a while and then say with a smile: “Oh! The game that is played with a bat?” A more knowledgeable person, often a journalist, exclaims: “The game that is played over five days!”
It was then our turn to explain that there are three versions of cricket and that the shortest one lasts just about three hours, which is closer to the duration of a football game.
The conversation then took a serious turn though when we were confronted by the most salient question: “Why has football lost popularity in your country? It is hard to understand why any other sport should become more popular when you have got the same emotional attachment to football that we do.”
Things do not become clearer when we say that cricket has provided successes for the country on the global stage. The counter argument is that only 32 countries qualify for the World Cup, so it can hardly mean that the success of a national team on the global stage is the sole guiding force behind the game's domestic popularity.
However, it was very difficult to describe the peculiar scenario of Bangladesh's domestic sports structure in general, let alone football in particular. It was also hard to explain how we have hardly any fans following any domestic sport, be it cricket or football. Our country's focus remains on creating a national identity and therefore cricket, the only sport to bring laurels from abroad, bears the whole nation's pride.
Football on the other hand, has become an international obsession. This generation of football fans are obsessed with the European Leagues, which they can enjoy for free on television. The World Cup comes every four years and with it unfolds a sharp divide in loyalty in our country. One group roots for Brazil while the other for Argentina with flags from either camp dominating the rooftops all over the country.
It was the same scenario for Bangladesh's domestic football circuit until the early 90s, when the game was a daily dose of entertainment, but that has now faded into memory.