Women’s football in Bangladesh: A look back
We talk a lot about the recent success of our girls and the hard work they are putting in to deliver success, but to understand the extent to which our women’s football has come, we need to take a look back to when and how our women’s football started.
We all know of Bangladesh’s glorious past in men’s football in regional terms as the sport was The Game for the country’s masses, even prior to independence. The game used to draw thousands of spectators to the Dhaka Stadium back in the day. The popularity reached its peak in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but unfortunately women had no part to play in it. No women were playing football in those times even though some were partaking in some other disciplines such as athletics, swimming, table tennis, badminton, handball, volleyball, etc.
In fact, women’s football worldwide was much less popular 20 years ago compared to the popularity it enjoys today. To make the game more popular FIFA, world football’s governing body, introduced the Women’s World Cup in 1991, and slowly countries around the world started to pick it up. Bangladesh, however, was a bit late in this regard as it took the local game’s governing body, the Bangladesh Football Federation, another 13 years to introduce a competitive women’s football tournament in the country.
The first competitive football tournament was preceded by an exhibition match between a visiting team from West Bengal and a BFF Women’s XI at Mirpur Stadium in 2001. The BFF XI was a hastily arranged team that had no prior expertise in football, and they took the field only after a few days’ training. BFF XI lost the match badly, but what it did was encourage the local organisers to think hard about the importance of having women playing the game.
Three years later, BFF introduced the first competitive women’s football tournament, with help from the Bangladesh Women’s Sports Association. BFF and BWSA ran talent hunt programmes and scouted women from other sports to form the six teams of the tournament, which featured a BFF XI as well as district teams and services teams. But as the tournament was set to take off, it faced a massive obstacle from a conservative section of society.
Since football is a game played in an open field, unlike some other sports which are played indoors, and players have to play wearing shorts, a religious group vehemently protested the tournament calling women’s football a ‘naked exhibition’. They took to the streets near the venue with banners and posters, threatening to halt the tournament by any means. The organisers, though, did not budge, and under police protection, the event was completed successfully.
To many, that was the biggest success for women’s football in Bangladesh and undoubtedly a symbolic victory for women’s empowerment in the country.
Success, challenges and obstacles:
One hurdle was crossed, but there were many more on the way, a lot of which still remain as difficult as they were 15 years ago. Getting the girls to come out of their homes was a big challenge for the game’s organisers at the grassroots level. It happened, but very slowly.
At the central level, getting sponsors on board for a glamourless sport like women’s football was a big challenge. The BFF did rope in some sponsors using the influence of the government or their own liaisons, but none of the sponsors stuck for too long. The National Football Championship for women was introduced in 2009. This championship was held for three editions, while a Dhaka-based club league was held for a few seasons as well. Over the last three years, there hasn’t been any women’s competitive football at the senior level. And that is not because there aren’t enough girls to play, but because the game’s local governing body does not have a clear vision regarding women’s football. It needs to be stressed here that unlike in developed countries, the development of women’s football here hasn’t been driven by corporate entities, but rather by the government and the funds provided by FIFA and AFC.
Despite these massive shortcomings, there has been quite a bit of success over the last four years, most of which came through age-group teams. Bangladesh girls’ under-14 team became champions in Asian Football Confederation’s regional competitions twice, and the under-16 team twice qualified for the final round of the AFC U-16 Championship. Besides, the under-15 team and the under-18 teams became champions in the SAFF (South Asian Football Federation) region.
But there has been a big disconnect between the age-group teams and the senior team. While the age-group teams have earned laurels from this region and beyond, the fate of the senior team has not changed much. Sad but true, our senior team still comprises age-group players mostly. As a result, they get thoroughly beaten even by our neighbours. In the last nine years, Bangladesh played in five editions of the Women’s SAFF Championship, but only managed to book a final berth once. We have been repeatedly told that when these under-14, under-16 and under-18 girls graduate to the senior team, we will have a strong senior team, but there has not been much signs of that transformation as yet. There is a worrying tendency among some of the young girls, that once they start graduating to the higher level, they fail to replicate the promise that they showed when they came on to the scene. We have seen cases where players aged below 16 replace players aged 17/18 in the under-19 team because the younger ones are performing better. If it continues like this, it is hard to predict when we will have a meaningful senior team that would be able to compete against teams like India and Nepal. After the recent debacle in the SAFF Women’s Championship, there is a call for starting a regular women’s football league, which will ensure competitive football for women while giving them some monetary incentive so that they don’t have to give up on the game.
We have to remember that most of these girls and women come from poor rural families, so there needs to be enough assurance provided to them in order that they are incentivised to stay in football and don’t have to look for any other occupation. It will also reduce the chances of their parents urging them to get married at an early age.
The bigger impact:
With intermittent leagues and tournaments based in Dhaka, it would not have been possible to see the stream of success that women’s football has delivered over the last few years. What worked as a paradigm shift here was the introduction of the Bangamata Primary School Gold Cup in 2011 by the Primary and Mass Education Department of the government. This tournament, like its sister-concern Bangabandhu Primary School Gold Cup for the boys which was introduced a year earlier, involves more than a million female students from more than 60,000 primary schools each year in the initial phase of the tournament. This is believed to be the largest football event in the world in terms of participating schools and players, and the numbers are rising each year as the interest of the schools, families and localities continues to grow.
This tournament has had a massive direct impact on the performance of our age-group teams. Kalshindur, a small village school from Mymensingh no one knew about seven years ago is now a very popular name, in fact a role model, due to success in the tournament. This school won the tournament three times from 2013 to 2015 and gave Bangladesh women’s players like Sanjida Akter, Tohura Khatun and many more. The players who performed well in this tournament were later on picked by the BFF, which has done a commendable job by turning these raw talents into proper footballers by giving them round-the-year training and arranging matches for them against foreign counterparts to make them capable of competing at the international level. Currently 80 per cent of the girls who are in BFF’s 40-member pool came through this tournament. The JFA Cup, a Japanese Football Association-funded project for age-group women, also played a similar role in promoting girls’ football.
But if we talk about success on the pitch, we are missing the bigger picture because the impact that this tournament has had off the pitch is much bigger than it has had on the pitch. Once the parents and the neighbours saw that their own girls, the girls from their neighbourhood or nearby villages were doing well and earning a name for themselves at national and international level, they were convinced that football was a good thing; that football can give these girls recognition and fame; that football can be an equal opportunity sport for both men and women. Girls who would have been otherwise engaged with household chores all day long are now spending their post-school sessions at the field, engaging in healthy sporting activity. It might be having a positive impact on school attendance as well.
This football revolution has brought a paradigm shift to a society which was traditionally very conservative, which did not see women on par with men, which often sees girls as a burden on families, better to get rid off through marriage as early as possible.
So it matters little at the moment how strong our women’s football team is in terms of the global game; what matters more is that women’s football has started a social revolution in our country, which should be driven forward by all means.
*This is a keynote paper presented during roundtable discussion organised jointly by The Daily Star and K-Sports at The Daily Star Centre on April 11, 2019