There are different levels in football fandom. If you are a football fan, chances are you have a European club that you root for, you own quite a few knockoff kits (or originals, don't bombard me with hate mails yet) and you are counting down the months to Brazil 2014. The next step is: you actually pick up a pair of boots and play the damn game, whether it's with an underground team or with the neighbourhood kids. And then there are the certain few, who have most of the boxes mentioned ticked and occasionally weep over the tragic fate of the local professional football scene. When was the last time you went to see a derby? Not the one in Manchester or Rome, but the one in Motijheel between Abahani and Mohammedan.
Ask your parents or grandparents about football in the '80s. It was immense to say the least. There were supporters making a long pilgrimage from one end of the country to another, chanting until they could speak no more, sitting with the opposition crowd and as a result getting chucked from one tier to another…we read about this, watched movies on Ultras and yarn to be in the crowd (some of us, at least). Our parents lived that! Go back a bit further to our Liberation War in 1971 and you have the Shadhin Bangla football team. It held an assembly of some of Bangladeshi football's greatest names such as Zakaria Pintoo, Kaiser Hamid and Kazi Salahuddin. The goal was simple, play to let the world know that we are independent.
I complain about being born in the wrong era of football, barely lucky to see us lift the SAFF Championship trophy in 2003 and watch us in the semi finals in 2009. But I rarely go see the B league matches. There is no hype surrounding that. How can you ask Bangladeshis to spare a few hours of their lives without seizure-inducing bright kits, tacky jingles and Eastern European cheerleaders like BPL Cricket? We will pay hundreds and in some cases thousands for that but can't spare 20 taka for a league football match (VIP ticket is 50 taka if you're interested). Did I mention students watched for free if you had your ID cards on you last season?
I will stop the guilt trip. It's not your fault that you are not in the audience to watch football. Bangladesh Football Federation has taken some ambitious steps to improve our football infrastructure but they still lack focus. It's the fans who make the team. Speaking with the newly appointed national team coach, Lodewijk de Kruif, who had a previous spell as the manager of Nigerian club Heartland FC, he mentioned how in Nigeria the scene changed over time. Most of the solutions the coach suggested are already there; the tickets are cheaper than most rickshaw fares. What else? The coach states, “To make the teams more attractive, maybe some clubs can pull players in their late 30s, early 40s -- big names in the world of football in their heydays, like they do it in Middle East and the Indian league. It could benefit the players to learn from someone with experience as well as pull in the fans.”
While that thought is quite attractive, do you think the BFF's pocket is that loose?
Driving the fans to the stadium starts with beautiful football. And that starts with the youth. Alif Rahman, who participated in an Under 19 camp held by BFF, speaks about his experience: “The accommodation was abysmal, 3 of us were cramped in a room in the BFF building while the foreign team stayed at a plush hotel. We need a better coach, we need better trainers and I don't think it's a hard ask for hygienic meals. We weren't being trained focusing on particular aspects each day. We had one training on set-pieces, that too for two hours. I was there for 21 days until I damaged my knee. Even if I were fit to continue, I was demoralised. The coaches were really harsh. Most of us lacked fitness and the answer to that was 'European chheleder dekhso?' Yes, we watch European football but that doesn't answer the question of how we keep our stamina and strength up.” This was back in October 2011.
The proper way to build a team by developing the youth is a football school, an isolated facility that will focus on the potential talent and all aspects of the game including fitness, diet, tactical education etc. This drives to the burning question of what happened with the National Sports Council, the so called “La Masia” of Bangladesh partially funded by FIFA that is supposed to be in Sylhet. The project was supposed to be finished by this year. If it does get finished by the time the next government comes into power, one might wonder whether the same people will be in charge of BFF. So it's back to square one.
And who can suck this poison that is politics out of every sport? A new government means probably a new board and the new board barely carries out the missions started by the old one. While the progress has been of snail pace, you have to pick out the positives. Rene Koster has worked wonders with the youth. Give this man a proper facility and good trainers along with time, loads of it. While our performance in SAFF this year was devastating, you have to take into account that de Kruif only had a short spell to work with the national team. His strategy of reverting from how we are used to playing the 3-5-2 formation to the Dutch “total voetball” style backfired, which probably was his big mistake. I wonder if BFF briefed the coach about the limitations of our tactical knowledge and stamina. The team probably needed more time to get used to the formation and the new methods of training. But what this coach needs, again, is time. He is familiar enough with a lot of the players and vowed to be ruthless towards the ones that do not make use of the chances they get.
Maybe he needs to keep account of how our previous coach Dido was sacked for not keeping his ego in check and not being flexible with the players' and the board's demands. If he wants us to play the Dutch style, let him work on it. It was certainly unfortunate, but in the game against Pakistan we finally looked like the better team (losing out to 2 goals on counters and set piece of course) and the performance in the AFC Challenge Cup qualifiers was satisfactory as well. There are positive needles in a big pile of demoralising haystack. If you keep shuffling the people who are supposed to build a winning team, you can't really move forward. Roma changed 16 managers in 17 years, which is one of the vital reasons for their instability throughout the years.
For us, the only way has to be up. When you have the likes of Mamunul and Ameli still in the squad and in our leagues, there must be means to build a team around them. For the supporters, we need to put aside the glitzy football from our head every now and then and find the Andrea Pirlo in Mamunul, the Messi in Meshu. Unfortunately Zahid is Ricardo Quaresma. You want your team to flourish, be the 12th man. You don't need to be in a stadium at the far end of the planet to play that part. They probably don't need us. We can be the 12th man in our own backyard. And maybe at some point remake the 2005 Liverpool in Istanbul comeback, with our own boys.