16-year-old centre back Akhi Khatun's talent caught the attention of scouts when she played in the 2014 edition of the Bangamata Primary School Gold Cup. She was soon enrolled in the Bangladesh Krira Shikkha Protishtan, or BKSP, and called up for the U-14 team playing at the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) women's regional championship in Tajikistan in 2015. The girls won.
In 2011, the Bangamata Primary School Gold Cup, a government-organised tournament, was first played. It is largely credited with engaging young female footballers from across the country.
Unlike many girls at the Bangladesh Football Federation's (BFF) training camp who play despite parental disapproval, Akhi is here because of it. “My father would take me to places where there were women's matches or tournaments being played,” she says. “I have been supported by my family from the start, unlike other apus in the camp who still do not. I am very lucky in that respect.” Akhi's family watches her matches on TV and come to the stadium to watch those that are not.
Basudeb, father of 18-year-old Krishna Rani Sarker, recalls the initial disapproval in their small village of Gopalpur in Tangail, when his daughter started playing. “Many people said, you only have one daughter, why are you sending her to play?” When Krishna was called up for the national team and represented Bangladesh abroad, however, their relatives and neighbours were interested when they saw her play on TV. Krishna is now a key player in the national team and her father credits her for helping support the family.
18-year-old Mishrat Jahan Mousumi, captain of Bangladesh U-19 women's team, also played football for the first time when her school participated in the annual Bangamata tournament. Unlike Akhi, Mousumi's family didn't support her playing football initially. As in Krishna's case, once they saw how well she was doing, their attitude changed.
Mousumi says her proudest moment was as part of the U-14 team which became champions at the AFC regional championship in 2015 (the first international title won by the women). “That was a first for women footballers. We soon started doing well in other tournaments too.” Mousumi's exploits with the team are a far cry from that of her friends back in school in Nabinagar, Savar. “My friends are all studying. Actually, many have already married.” Mousumi wants to play football for as long as she's able to—and then take up a government job.
Life in training
The girls live year-round at the dormitory in the Bangladesh Football Federation (BFF) academy. They live away from their families for the most part of the year and have a strict training regimen. “At first, I didn't like it here. I could no longer go out or play whenever I wished. We have to maintain strict discipline. I used to feel captive,” says Maria. “Now, all the players live here like siblings.”
Akhi agrees that the camaraderie born in the dorms has made it easier to live away from family and friends. “Everyone, despite being juniors or seniors, is seen as the same,” she says. The improved facilities also help—the young footballers participate regularly in international tournaments and receive a monthly stipend of Tk 10,000 while in the camp.
“I believe coaches play a big role in nurturing and enhancing the capabilities of players. I have been fortunate to get such guidance,” says Sabina Khatun, perhaps the best-known Bangladeshi footballer and captain of the national team. She recalls their coach, Golam Rabbani Chhoton, who would earlier have to personally take care of the girls' needs such as taking their torn boots to have repaired, when they didn't have the facilities they do now.
The story of teacher and coach Mohammad Mafizuddin, formerly at Kalshindur government primary school in rural Mymensingh who formed a team for the tournament, is now widely known. Kalshindur has now produced many footballers currently in the national team.
Mafizuddin's struggles included fighting negative stereotypes about girls playing in the open and at a “boy's” sport, wearing shorts to boot, as well as long-term attitudes of parents who disapproved of their daughters playing for a living.
Kalshindur was the champions in the Bangamata tournament for three consecutive years between 2013 and 2015, a true testament to the tenacity of one coach and his young charges in a small part of rural Bangladesh.
Midfielder Maria Manda, captain of the U-16 team, came out of this school. She recalls how coach Mafizuddin, or Mafiz sir as the girls call him, put together a team a month before the inaugural Bangamata tournament. “We played barefoot,” says Maria. They didn't win that year but the coach urged them to try again the following year. “Sir didn't let us stop playing, he told us we didn't win once but if we try again, we can.” The school went on to win the 2013 edition of the tournament.
Maria was soon selected for the U-14 national team and went on to play abroad, first in Nepal. One of the only deterrents she faced was what would happen to her studies. While the girls now get tutors to the girls' dormitory after practice to allow them to keep up with their studies, Maria misses the simple pleasures of going to school, learning from her teachers, and having fun with friends. She now only goes back to her school to sit for exams. “My friends say that I am doing well for the country, that they pray for me so that I do better, and to remember them,” says Maria with a smile.
Maria and co. are currently preparing for the upcoming Bangamata U-19 Women's International Gold Cup 2019 tournament, at home. The sport has come a long way from the initial barriers of girls being unable to play a “boy's” sport and wearing shorts openly. Today, what is holding women's football back from flourishing in the country is the lack of funding and infrastructural support. According to the BFF, the daily costs of running the female footballers' camp alone is a challenge to keep up with.
Players left out
Mafizuddin of Kalshindur urges BFF to create more opportunities for 'discarded' players so that they can remain competitive and be eligible for a return to the national team. “When girls graduate to a certain level, there are no opportunities and incentives for them to continue playing.”
Calls for a regular women's football league, so that women can play competitive football year-round and earn so that they are not forced to give up football, are echoed by players, coaches and officials alike. Youth football has been significantly prioritised and these girls, playing in both the age-group teams and the national team, are the future of the sport. The state of the national team itself and senior players is not as rosy.
The national team is on the 127th spot (out of 155) in FIFA women's rankings. The bulk of the senior team is made up of age-group players whose performance in the national team does not always live up to their promise as talented young footballers in the age-group teams. The ranking took a dip from 100 in early 2017 to 125 in late 2018, as the national team had not played an international match for more than 18 months.
The lack of senior players was attributed to the national team's failure to go past the group stage in the SAFF championship in Nepal in March.
Mirona Khatun played professionally between 2008 and 2016. She eventually applied for another job with the navy in 2014, because she had no regular source of income. “Options are limited for footballers—we do not get any jobs or get any salaries. There are no clubs or leagues to play in,” she says.
Though Mirona was called up for the national team in 2017, she was unable to participate because her job made it difficult to keep her football performance up to scratch. This, she says, is a problem for senior players like her who don't have any option to play professional matches.
Through a BFF initiative to encourage girls to have options after their playing years, Mirona had taken a coaching license course back in 2013. In 2018, when she decided she had no other choice but to hang up her boots, Mirona went ahead and got the coaching license she needed in order to be eligible to coach a professional team. This paid off as she was hired by the Dhaka City football club in December last year—the first time that a female coach has been in charge of a professional male team.
“There is no national championship; so what will senior players, who can no longer play at the age-group level, do? Why aren't there more opportunities for senior players in the national team?” she asks. “The younger players get more priority as they get to play year-round. When they do well, they get sponsors and money. Seniors at the national camp do not get these financial incentives.”
Women's football is largely results-based, with the carrot dished out only when the team wins. BFF officials say sponsors are difficult to find, especially ones who will stick with the team in the long term and not just immediately following a successful stint abroad by the national team or one of the age-groups.
Over the last decade too, football tournaments have been initiated but have largely been one-off, other than the annual Japanese Football Association Cup for age-group teams. Clubs and corporate sponsors are not interested in women's football, says Mahfuza Akhter Kiron, FIFA Council member and BFF women's wing chairman. As a result, not a single competitive domestic match has been played by senior women footballers in the last three years.
It is not as if there is a lack of talent, says national team coach Chhoton. “We have a huge number of players. We need to synchronise talent scouting and training facilities to be able to prepare players for international competitions.”
An uncertain future
The lack of avenues to advance and an uncertain future in football acts as a deterrent to players. Few players have seen the success of Sabina Khatun, from Sathkhira, who at 26 is still playing and is captain of the national team. The striker is one of only three players to play professionally outside the country, the others being Mirona and goalkeeper Sabina Akter. Sabina Khatun is also involved in coaching the women's age-group teams.
Pay disparity is, of course, an issue but is tied in with the lack of opportunities for women to play competitive football. According to BFF's Kiron, the sport needs good coaching staff, suitable playing fields, financial back-up, long-term training, proper diet and most importantly, willingness. “We can host an age-level World Cup in Bangladesh any time we want but we are unable to because of a lack of infrastructure. The government needs to provide support in this regard, sponsorship alone cannot ensure the smooth running of camps and trainings in the long term.”
While there may be sufficient talent on the pitch, there are not many women in football in general. In a recent roundtable held at The Daily Star on women's football, four current and former footballers and a senior BFF official were present. The rest of the room were all men, including coaches, scouts, journalists and government officials.
“Most of those who work in the BFF women's wing are all men. If their outlook doesn't change, we will not be able to improve. When women eventually work in these positions, they will be able to work to fully advance women's football,” says Mirona.
But as the women's success on the pitch shows, the outlook is not gloomy. As Akhi puts it, “Women's football today and earlier are not the same. Someone who's good at something can't be stopped.”