Arguably the most outstanding player of Bangladesh’s football history, Kazi Mohammad Salahuddin had spent almost his whole club career playing for Abahani Krira Chakra. During the late seventies when he used to enter the field, the spectators of a full-packed stadium kept their eyes glued on him. He used to adjust the strips of his boots just before the referee’s kickoff whistle. The moment Salahuddin concentrated on his boots’ strips all football lovers, irrespective of the supporters of Abahani and Mohammedan, used to begin clapping and they continued it until his strip adjustment was not completed! And this had happened before the beginning of every match where he played for the team! It seemed that his fans had found this practice as a way to appreciate his performance and undoubtedly Salahuddin had enjoyed this unique taste of stardom. Thus when the same person became the first elected president of Bangladesh Football Federation (BFF) in 2008, sports enthusiasts thought that finally our football will see a new dawn as back then Bangladesh football was struggling to survive slipping down to 183rd position in FIFA ranking. A decade later, when Salahuddin is nearing completion of his third term as BFF president, Bangladesh has relegated to 197th place, lowest in the history, in FIFA ranking! Certainly BFF boss must take his responsibility but he cannot be blamed solely for such a situation of Bangladesh’s football. There are other factors and definite causes which have pushed our football to the backbench. When FIFA World Cup has the whole nation in the grip of football fever and fans are buying jerseys and waving flags of different countries and involving them in crazy debate supporting their favourite team, ‘morning tea’ thinks that it’s the right time to scrutinize the reasons behind Bangladesh football’s downfall.
Like other parts of the world football was the most popular game in Bangladesh before cricket overshadowed the game with continuous success. In the pre-independence era Mohammedan Sporting Club, Dhaka Wanderers Club, Azad Boys Club, Wari Club, Victoria Club, EPIDC etc. were the most dominant clubs of Dhaka’s football. Especially when Dhaka Wanderers and Mohammedan SC faced each other, Dhaka’s sports lovers were divided into two groups. From households to tea stalls everywhere the epic contest turned into the talk of the town.\
The beautiful game is well attached with the history of glorious Liberation War. During those red letter days, our footballers created a unique example of patriotism. Not with guns or grenades but they used football as a weapon to fight for the country. Around thirty Bangladeshi footballers together formed Shadhin Bangla Football Team and played 16 matches in India to organise public opinion in favour of us and contribute money to the Muktijuddho Fund.
Football scene revived in independent Bangladesh as Bangladesh Football Federation was founded in 1972 and football league was introduced in the same year. Along with the old clubs some fresh clubs like Abahani Krira Chakra, Brothers Union and BJMC emerged as the new super powers in Dhaka’s football. Besides, Chattogram Mohammedan, Chattogram Abahani and Rising Club in Chattogram, Khulna Mohammedan, Khulna Abahani, Khulna Shipyard in Khulna, Narayanganj Dockyard, Mohsin Club, Shuktara Sporting Club and DSS in Narayanganj also played crucial role to strengthen the base of Bangladesh football. Back then sports enthusiasts loved to watch football matches in the stadium. In the new country the mass people took football as a new medium of their entertainment. Replacing Wanderers-Mohammedan contest Abahani-Mohammedan had created a sensation for Dhaka’s football fans. Even till the late nineties Abahani-Mohammedan matches were like a civil war. The whole country was divided in the name of two teams. Service holders returned early from the office and students used to remain absent in classes to watch the nail-biting games. Supporters could do anything for a ticket of the match. But unfortunately the situation has changed and the hardcore support for local football clubs has disappeared gradually.
In the consequent years Bangladesh’s success in international tournaments dried up. Domestic football became irregular, fans started petering out from gallery and sponsors lost their interest in the game. In the meantime new clubs like Muktijoddha Sangsad Krira Chakra, Arambagh Krira Sangha, Sheikh Russel Krira Chakra, Sheikh Jamal Dhanmondi Club and Saif Sporting Club have invested in football but their efforts have made no difference when it comes to national team’s success. In their last seven games Bangladesh national team has lost in five matches and drawn two other games! Bangladesh national team has played their first international match against Laos in March this year after 17 months since their humiliating 1-3 loss to Bhutan in Asian Cup pre-qualifying match in October 2016. In the last 10 years, a total of 18 coaches, including 11 foreigners, handled the national team but they hardly could bring any positive result! While leaving Bangladesh most of the foreign coaches recommended for certain drastic changes in the system but BFF has paid no heed to their advice.
The problems of Bangladesh football are deep-rooted. The basic infrastructure leading to professional football is almost non-existent and there is a lack of proper framework as well. From playgrounds to training academies BFF has failed to ensure basic facilities for nurturing the footballers. There is scarcity of quality coaches and the limited numbers of coaches who are qualified are deprived of necessary amenities. Besides, match-fixing and excessive politicisations are two major flaws of Bangladesh football where the football authority has no attention. BFF is continuing the top tier leagues and tournaments regularly but it hardly concentrates on the mid and low level tournaments. For example, the Pioneer League, a transition tournament between semi-pro and professional football, was the breeding ground for many national team players. But attempts to resuscitate it have so far failed. Thus despite having numerous talented footballers in the country Bangladesh has not been able to pick them up.
Apart from it Sher-e-Bangla Cup, JFA Cup, School Football Tournament, Suhrawardi Cup and other age group football tournaments have vanished from the football calendar. However BFF recently took a fresh initiative of holding school football but only with 53 schools, whereas 4,800 schools had participated in the last complete edition of it in 2012. The necessity of school football is evident in women’s football. It saved the faces of officials by bringing some successes at international level in the recent years. Most of the players, who qualified for the AFC Under-16 final round in 2016 and won the SAFF Under-15 tournament last year, came through Bangamata Gold Cup, a primary school football tournament for girls, which is organised by the Ministry of Primary and Mass Education. The ministry runs another tournament, Bangabandhu Gold Cup, for primary school boys, but the BFF could not reap any benefit from it.
Well, it was a major responsibility of BFF to ensure the training of trainers. Coaching at a young age is the most important criterion that is less emphasised in Bangladesh and therefore the players who grow old retain poor habits that were not corrected earlier. The guardian organisation of Bangladesh football could train and facilitate the coaches and spread them to different regions to bring the potential footballers. BFF officials often claim that it is not the duty of the federation to produce talents as clubs take this responsibility in other countries. But the BFF has failed to arrange age-level competition for them on a regular basis. In fact, over the past 10 years, the age-level club competitions was held only three times— first in 2013 for Under-16 age group, then in 2014 for Under-18 age group and finally this year for the players of same age level. As a result, the number of quality footballers fell greatly and this was revealed in the last Bangladesh Premier League where 34 foreign players scored around 60 percent of the goals. Moreover, among the top 10 strikers there is only 1 Bangladeshi, which is another example of how Bangladesh’s football is suffering from the lack of skilled footballers.
In order to nurture raw talents, the BFF had opened a football academy in Sylhet in 2015 but they closed down its operation after one year as the federation failed to ensure fund. The government often expressed its intent to provide budgetary support. In June 2015, at the insistence of finance minister AMA Muhith, Association of Bankers Bangladesh Limited agreed to give Tk 20 crore to BFF, but they could collect only Tk 8 crore from them. In 2014, the government also allowed the federation to organise Football Development Lottery which generated Tk 1.2 crore, though the BFF never revealed how it had spent the income earned from it. Bangladesh made an entry for AFC Solidarity Cup, but BFF pulled out their name immediately after their shocking loss against Bhutan. Consequently Asian Football Confederation penalised Bangladesh Football Federation $20,000 for late withdrawal! And such incident happened at a time when BFF was struggling to pay $50,000 to Nepal as the championship prize money of Bangabandhu Gold Cup diminishing the international image of Bangladesh football!
During his second term Kazi Salahuddin presented an ambitious plan of Vision-2022 as he wanted a place for Bangladesh in Qatar World Cup, which has turned into a joke now. Hyperbolic promises create instant sensation and bring individual to limelight. But when hard work and cordiality seem inadequate and, words and behavior don’t match, then the person himself and his dream prove to be a farce. With 160 million people Bangladesh has many requisite elements for becoming a successful football nation. But due to lack of proper planning and efficient implementation of that plan the country is lagging behind in the international football arena. Bangladesh needs meaningful change in its football infrastructure and for that policymakers and football organisers will have to step forward with sincere efforts. After all, this nation’s love for football deserves some return.