Bangladesh’s indomitable band of sisters
Before emerging as champions of the just-concluded 2022 SAFF Women's Championship, the women in red and green had played a final once before – during the regional competition's 2016 edition. But as the in-form Sabina Khatun, Sanjida Akhtar, Maria Manda and company prepared to encounter hosts Nepal, the Bangladesh head coach Golam Rabbani Choton deemed his charges as favourites -- not based on the track records against the four-time runners-up but on their current form.
Taking all factors into consideration, it would have been unwise to bet against the home side playing in front of a raucous full-capacity crowd at Kathmandu's Dasarath Rangasala, which saw Bangladesh fans vastly outnumbered.
However, Choton's faith in his charges made complete sense since the Sabina-led band of sisters, with several players from the SAFF U-19 champion side, have shown that they have what it takes to thrive under pressure ever since they burst into the scene in the country's footballing sphere. And in the final, a 3-1 victory verified that notion.
With the way they operated throughout the tournament, Bangladesh won the hearts of football audiences, neutrals or otherwise. Skills, determination, tactical clarity and composure, were all on full display. This bunch of footballers -- hailing from the Chittagong Hill Tracts, Satkhira, the now-famous Kalsindur village, and more -- and their passion for the game was an embodiment of how a team game like football must be played in its most authentic form.
Earlier in the group stage, Bangladesh were expected to shrug off Maldives and Pakistan, and they did. However, the hallmark of a great team is to not just win against inferior opponents, but to win in style.
Against Pakistan, when Bangladesh were 4 goals up, Ritu Porna's stunning long-ranger -- a goal she dedicated to her brother, who recently passed away -- was a testament to the team's attacking flair.
Then in the final group-stage match, five-time champions India were in Bangladesh's way. Bangladesh emerged comfortable winners of the tie with a 3-0 victory as Bangladesh forwards – Sirat Jahan Swapna and Krishna Rani Sarkar -- showed tremendous chemistry between themselves and skipper Sabina -- being the only player in the team aged over 21 -- played the role of the playmaker, led from the front. The resilience and composure displayed by the two central defenders Akhi Khatun and Shamsunnahar Sr. and goalkeeper Rupna Chakma, who soldiered through despite getting hurt, were also laudable.
Aside from outplaying India, what Bangladesh players showed that day was their ability of neutralising the strengths of opponents superior on paper.
Bhutan in the semifinals was no match as they too suffered a heavy defeat, an 8-0 drubbing. What was most impressive about the Bangladesh team is how they kept the intensity despite going 3-0 up inside 30 minutes.
The midfield duo of Monika Chakma and Maria Manda, combining with the full-backs in Sheuli Azim and Masura Parvin, hounded the Bhutanese players like a pack of wolves while gaining possession.
The best teams to have graced the pitch in history have shown, time and again, that despite odds stacked heavily against them, champion teams decide their fate for themselves. At the opponents' den at the Rangasala last night, the rainy conditions did not allow Sabina and Co to impose their natural attacking flair but still the women in red and green made the most of the opportunities to seal the game and the elusive maiden trophy.
Losing striker Swapna to injury early was a big blow since Bangladesh had featured a fixed playing eleven in the games prior. But the charges of Choton are not just all about the preferred eleven. It was verified when Shamsunnahar Jr. superbly flicked to give Bangladesh the lead in the 14th minute, just four minutes after her arrival before Krishna showed her finishing prowess on either side of the interval.
The way central midfielder Monika Chakma set up the first goal – dummying the defender the other way to make room for the cross from the right flank – showed the flexibility of the players playing in this dynamic side where the whole becomes larger than the sum of its parts.