The Bangladesh under-15 women's team returned home yesterday morning from Thimphu but not before undertaking an unusually early morning preparation to catch the 8:30am flight from the Bhutanese capital.
They had to report at the hotel lobby at 4am and then embarked on a one-hour drive to reach the airport. Sitting idly for three hours at the airport early in the morning is a certainly a form of torture unless there is a valid reason. However, it could also be treated as a punishment for the girls who failed to retain the SAFF Under-15 Women's football title. They suffered a 1-0 defeat against their Indian counterparts in the final on Saturday.
Since that defeat against India, which was unexpected considering the quality and skill of the Bangladesh girls and their performances leading up to the final, the popular notion is that they failed to perform collectively. It was one of those off days where everything went wrong. But that failure had more to do off the field, or to be precise, the inability of the coaching staff to counter India's game plan of tough marking against key Bangladesh players.
Indian coach Firmin D'Souza came into the final with a particular strategy; to not allow the Bangladesh team's architects -- midfielders Maria Manda and Monica Chakma -- to play their natural game as well as to block both flanks, a plan which his charges executed perfectly.
Although BFF's technical and strategic director Paul Smalley (many questioned why he was in Bhutan) was there alongside coach Golam Rabbani Choton in the high-profile Bangladesh dugout, there was evidently no plan B for the team.
“Initially we could not understand that Indian players were marking us closely and following us everywhere we moved on the pitch,” midfielder Monica Chakma told The Daily Star yesterday.
“Actually, Monica and I had been under tight marking by the Indian players. Akhi [Khatun], who also helps build up the game from behind and scores goals from long range, was also marked. Besides, the Indian players blocked our right and left sides, thus we could not build up any attacks from the flanks,” explained captain Maria while elaborating the reasons behind their below-par performance in the final against a team they have beaten four times in 2016 and 2017.
Tall defender Akhi admitted that India's approach to the game had disturbed the performance of the other players.
“Our backbone is our midfield but Indian players just blocked Monica and Maria. They even did not allow me to take long shots. Generally, when Maria and Monica play well it help others but everything went awry when both of them failed to perform. When the defenders can't do well, the pressure is put on the goalkeeper. And that was what actually happened in the final,” said Akhi, who has also been with the team for nearly four years.
Stamina and skill development are the two major aspects of football and the Bangladesh girls have made huge strides in those areas when compared to other teams in this region. Technical knowledge is another key area, which unfortunately the Bangladesh girls are yet to develop, as evident in the final.
And if the Bangladesh girls are to emerge as a force in Asia they must learn the technical aspect of the game. The girls will now be readying themselves for September's AFC U-16 Women's Championship Qualifiers stage, which is tougher than the SAFF competition. They will resume training after the Eid vacation but the question is whether the coaching staff will be able to teach the girls those complex technical aspects of the game.