A youth football league with many loopholes
Bangladesh Football Federation has seen the completion of the inaugural season of the BFF U-18 Football League last Monday, where more than 200 budding footballers got a new platform to showcase their talent on a competitive stage.
The BFF U-18 Football League is the top-tier of the Bangladeshi football league system for under 18 players, where the youth teams of Bangladesh Premier League clubs compete in.
Sheikh Jamal DC clinched the title after posting seven wins, one draw and just one loss in nine games. But there is a loophole in their success story. Instead of having to carry out arduous open trials to find players, they opted to rent in the services of one of the most renowned football academies in the country to play on behalf of the team.
The Dhanmondi Club fielded the youth team of Jashore's Shams Ul Huda Football Academy and even roped in the academy's coach ahead of the league. By doing that they had already gained the upper hand as the players from the academy, unlike the players roped in through open trials in other clubs, were well-drilled in a footballing, professional environment that provided them with proper facilities and had been playing together for about two years. Quite expectedly, they used that quality and experience to become champions.
"The players have been together for nearly two years, with training two sessions in a day by availing modern facilities at the academy in Jashore. They have been improving day by day and have a good understanding with each other," said Sheikh Jamal's U-18 team coach Kazi Maruf Hossain.
Sheikh Jamal's triumph, or to be more specific Shams Ul Huda Football Academy's success, has shown that if clubs take the initiative of facilitating round-the-year youth teams into their club structure, then favourable outcomes for youth football will follow, not only for the clubs but also for Bangladesh football in a broader perspective.
Despite the glimpses of talent and potential seen amongst some, the league wasn't allowed to maximise their potential owing to a lack to training and preparation for the players.
The BPL clubs hastily assembled their youth squads by trials before providing them with a short training stint to get them ready for the inaugural youth league despite the clubs having the obligation to maintain youth squads in line with the club licensing issued by BFF.
The league kicked off despite having numerous issues -- participating teams lacking preparation due to a time crunch, a tight schedule which assigned 45 matches to be completed within six weeks, and the elephant in the room for which the clubs actually rushed their activities -- a fine of Tk 20 lakh looming over the clubs if they failed to field a team in the youth league. And inevitably, inferring from such activities, one would question the spirit and ambition of the club officials to actually contribute to the development of youth football.
Despite all these issues blemishing the league, club officials and coaches alike believe the country's football will be benefited if the youth league is continued. But some of them did, however, acknowledge that more attention is due towards the youth teams.
"The positive side of the competition was that the players got more matches to play compared to the previous editions," Bashundhara Kings technical director BA Jubair Nipu said. "But the goal of the youth league will not be met if the clubs don't have permanent youth squads."
Age fraud has been a major issue in youth tournaments, and the BFF made it mandatory for clubs to provide test results which determined the real age of players before participating.
While many deemed the recently concluded league as more competitive in relation to previous editions, some pointed finger at the subpar standard of football in the matches which might have been due to the lack of training and preparation as teams scrambled to put their youth squads together.
Rahmatganj MFS' advisory coach Syed Golam Jilani said, "Compared to previous youth tournaments, the league was more competitive this time around with the participation of real-aged players as no one could predict that their team would win."
"The players lacked technical knowledge but they tried to put up what they learned," the former BFF youth coach said. "I think the standard of the matches could have been much better had these players been given a long period of training before the start of the league."
Sheikh Russel coach Abdul Baten Komol refused to identify the participating sides as proper youth teams administered by clubs as the players were grouped together via open trials. "It was not youth teams of top clubs because the players were collected through trials. These players lacked institutional football education due to shortage of technical knowledge."
Mohammedan coach Alfaz Ahmed felt that there was a clear lack of interest among club officials and they only formed youth teams to avoid the possible penalties.
"I think most of the clubs had no target and they might've just wanted to avoid the punishment," Alfaz said. "I think the BFF should announce a lucrative prize money for the winning team instead of fining Tk20 lakh for non-participation; then the clubs will find that interest to nurse their youth teams round the year."