Our unwarranted fixation with foreign sportsmen
A 40-year-old Argentina supporter wanted to raise the blue and white stripes atop his building in Dhaka. His hand-held flag-mast came in contact with high voltage electricity. This was before Eid-ul-Fitr. He suffered serious burn injuries, and had to have both his legs amputated. Lionel Messi will never know about this fanatic fan's meaningless sacrifice. On the day Brazil lost to Belgium, the father of two also lost a battle, he died a Bangladeshi.
Defender Marcos Rojo will also not ever find out about Selim Hossain (45). Elated at his team's 86th-minute second and winning goal against Nigeria, the Argentina devotee collapsed in front of the giant screen at Beldarpara in Rajshahi. His joy was momentary; the pain for his family permanent. Without a single person across Argentina unlikely to know about his cardiac arrest, the Bangladeshi soccer aficionado breathed his last at Rajshahi Medical College Hospital.
Grateful Magura man Amjad Hossain (69) sponsored a three-km-long German flag during 2014 World Cup. German Chargé d'affaires visited Magura and bestowed Hossain with lifetime Germany fan club membership, a football and of course a German flag, but many times smaller. A humble farmer, Hossain sold a 50-decimal land to raise Tk 1.5 lakh (almost USD 2,000) for three tailors and the many metres of black, red and yellow fabrics. Hossain was in fact repaying a debt. In 1987, a German medicine cured him of a dreadful illness. Four years on, the thankful farmer sold yet another patch of land. This year he made a 5.5km-long flag. Hector, Khedira and Ozil may not be in the team in four years, but Hossain plans a 22km-long flag for the 2022 World Cup. I believe he does not have enough land to sew up to Berlin.
Such euphoria and more is common in Bangladesh (and even neighbouring India) during FIFA World Cup. Processions with respective team headscarf, jersey, and painted face to the music of deshi band party are traditional in the capital and remote villages. Then there are the pathetic cases of warring factions; Bangladeshi extremist fans are making rival supporters bleed when, in actuality, Brazil-Argentina-German-Russian fans are hugging each other at the actual venue. Extensive trolling on Facebook gains notoriety as the tournament progresses. All this, by the 194th-ranked footballing nation.
Before Bangladesh became a world power in cricket (I wish I was writing this before its being 43 all-out and a heavy innings defeat to a resurrecting West Indies), our stadiums and the faces of some shameless people were tainted with Indian and Pakistani flags as an expression of their admiration for foreign players. They could be making a political statement too. The issue was raised in this Chintito column under “Of flags, fans and fanaticism” on April 20, 1996. Now all that has passed. There is pride for our cricketers, there are expectations, and there are occasional rewards too.
Hardly any land in the world can boast of historically being host to such a bevy of foreigners, who, uninvited, conquered most often by local connivance, lesser by battle and more by betrayal. Initially, they entered our towns in convoys with some understandable trepidation, but even before they could alight from their horses they discovered that this was a welcoming and hospitable people, ready to hand over land, flag and pride, only to undermine and suppress domestic adversaries. Armed unnecessarily to the nose, our visitors found readymade cots and plots (pun not intended), houses and spouses.
That inferiority complex takes over some thoroughly confused Bangladeshis (and even Indians for that matter) every four years. Since they are not in it (the WC finals), they pick a horse and rejoice its colours. Up to that point perhaps it is acceptable, but to fly the flag of another country on a building, tree or car is the working of a debased mind.
Not many Bangladeshis are aware that we do play in the FIFA World Cup qualifying round on a home-and-away basis. There is never a single red-and-green flag flown anywhere in the world, and the stadium at Dhaka is barren. We bow out in silence.
A Bangladeshi expatriate recently uploaded a video of streets and buildings at Brazil's Sao Paulo during the current World Cup; there was not a single Brazilian flag flying. The Bangali narrator lamented that 700 Bangladeshi workers had asked permission from their employer company to fly the lal-sobuj pataka on March 26; permission NOT granted initially. After much persuasion, they were allowed to fly the Bangladesh flag in Brazil for five to six hours. And here, for months on, some of us are giving up lunch, dinner and property to paint the country yellow and blue, black and white.
Supporting world-class sports personalities in admiration of their skills is fine. But to let emotions run haywire to defy our own gazetted Flag Rules is a question mark on patriotism. For instance, Shakib Al Hasan has been the world's no.1 all-round cricketer for several years now. Did we ever see one West Indian sporting his portrait on a t-shirt, or a Bangladeshi flag flying atop an Australian house in recognition of his achievement? Or ours, when we beat the giants in the game?
Let me give you two more examples from my Chintito column of April 4, 2014 titled “A National Flag is a Political Property”. One, Pakistani speedster, World Cup winner, and now commentator Wasim Akram is always full of praise for Sachin Tendulkar, but he does not say that with an Indian flag painted on his cheek. I have checked both. Two, World Cup hero and later TV pundit Ravi Shastri always has flowery appreciation for Shahid Afridi, but you will never see him wave a Pakistani flag from the commentary box. It would be so demeaning for both of them.
We have perhaps three options to overcome this debauched phoren-preeti. We can try to qualify for 2026 North America Finals where there will be 48 countries, graduating by region. Not possible, eh? Alternatively, we can request FIFA to have 200 countries in the 2030 finals. Our best bet, however, is to invite players from Africa to adopt Bangladesh as their home. I get the idea from the current French team at Russia, which comprises (would you believe?) players mostly of African descent.
On a more serious note, and taking cue from our success in banning wanton English New Year's celebrations on our streets and public places, flying foreign flags should be prohibited as per existing law, and this should be implemented voluntarily by valuing nationalism, and by civil vigilance, by Qatar 2022.
Dr Nizamuddin Ahmed is an architect, a Commonwealth Scholar and a Fellow, a Baden-Powell Fellow Scout Leader, and a Major Donor Rotarian.