Beneath the surface of local strikers’ struggles
"I have always said that scoring a goal is the best feeling in the world," legendary English striker Alan Shearer once said. In football, where goals decide destinies, it is a striker's role to deliver balls to the back of the net. Strikers often lead attacks, celebrate in flamboyant fashion and are the 'face' of their team. Although football is a team sport, no position is as respected as that of a goal-scorer. Ask any child what position they want to play, and they are likely to reply: "STRIKER!". But what does it take to be a striker? Many say confidence, technical ability, awareness, composure, movement on and off the ball, communication and discipline shape what ultimately is known as a striker's killer instinct. To grow such instincts, it is often said that a great foundation is a pre-requisite. From Bangladesh's perspective, however, the nation has suffered on the international stage in the past decades due to the absence of instinctive strikers. Alfaz Ahmed -- one of the last Bangladeshis that belonged to that breed of strikers alongside contemporaries like Rokonuzzaman Kanchan, Imtiaz Ahmed Nakib and others -- shared his concerns regarding the scarcity of lethal finishers in Bangladesh in an interview with The Daily Star's Ashfaq Ul Mushfiq. The excerpts are below:
The Daily Star (DS): What are your thoughts on Bangladesh's recent performances in the Asian Cup Qualifiers?
Alfaz Ahmed (AA): The difference in the standard of football was clear. They are ahead of us in many aspects of the game. Bangladesh football has seen a lot of change off the pitch in recent times. For instance, changes to coaches and the squad. So they are having a tough time adjusting to the process. Although there were some glimpses of good football, our finishing totally let us down.
DS: Speaking of finishing, we saw some great goal-scoring Bangladeshis during your era at both club and national level. But nowadays we see foreigners dominate at the club level while local strikers warm the bench. Why is that happening?
AA: I think it has to do with the mentality of club authorities. You won't see them bringing foreign players for positions other than striker. There are clubs that bring more than one foreign striker and derive locals of opportunity and game-time. When young strikers do well at age-level, they get called to professional clubs. But after making it that far, they don't get opportunities or game time because clubs prefer to play foreigners.
DS: Is that because of a disparity in skill?
AA: If a player is not getting game time, how can you expect him to gain skills? Sure, you can shoot a ball into the net 100 times in practice. But if you don't have the experience of scoring for your team in a difficult scenario, how will you be prepared for higher levels and the national team? Being a striker doesn't only mean knowing how to shoot on target, but also having game awareness, movement on and off the ball, positioning, first touch and great understanding with your teammates. But if opportunities are not afforded, how will a striker gain such qualities? As we can see, most national-team strikers are acquired by big clubs like Bashundhara Kings and Abahani. But those clubs play their foreign strikers more often in the league. So you see foreign strikers topping the goal-scoring charts every year. If local strikers are not gaining experience at the club level, can we keep asking why they fail to score for the national team?
DS: Given the current situation, what should a striker do to become better?
AA: I think strikers should work on a lot of mental aspects. There are multiple issues. First, there are many strikers who change their positions just because they don't get enough game time up front. But severing the head is not a solution for a headache. A striker should work hard and fight for his place on the team. You can only get better if you compete with someone better than you. If you think foreign strikers are better, you should try your best to outdo them. If you need game time, go to a smaller club, work hard, get more game time and score more goals. That will not only give you confidence, but you will also gain more experience as a striker and hone that goal-scoring instinct. If you're happy sitting on the bench at a big club, you will never improve as a striker.
DS: You're currently coaching at an academy. What do you teach the kids who aspire to be strikers?
AA: A good foundation is very important at every position. Whether someone wants to be a striker or a midfielder, fundamentals are very important. Things such as those I've mentioned earlier -- game awareness, movement on and off the ball, positioning and first touch – should be taught to strikers during their developmental stage. It's not just in my academy, there are many academies around the country with licensed coaches that produce great strikers.
That may sound promising for the future, but there is a big gap. There are a lot of tournaments held every year for Under-14 and U-17 teams. Those who do well in the U-14s are promoted and do well in the U-17s and at both club and district level. But you hardly see U-19 or U-21 tournaments, which is a crucial stage when any footballer develops for the elite level. Due to this gap, many footballers drop out. And those who make it in professional clubs fall behind foreign strikers. Football is also very Dhaka-centric at the league level, so many aspiring players from outside the capital miss out on opportunities.
DS: So what could the process of solving Bangladesh's goal-scoring conundrum look like in the long run?
AA: See, the lack of strikers has created another problem. Those who are currently in the national team have started to take their positions for granted because of a lack of competition for places. This sort of mentality will only destroy a player in the long run. Back in our day, there was intense competition for the national team's No. 9 position. There were players like Nakib, Mijanur Rahman and Rokonuzzaman Kanchan alongside me and we used to work hard all the time for a place in the starting eleven. This sort of mentality is missing today.