As the 1970s dawned, a call for greater autonomy and respect reverberated across East Pakistan. The Bengali nationalist sentiment annoyed General Yahya Khan, the new president of Pakistan, to a great extent, and on the night of March 25, 1971, he submitted Operation Searchlight. The brutal campaign sought to suppress dissent in East Pakistan, obliterating political, social, or military opposition. The ensuing months witnessed an unspeakable tragedy as a systematic genocide unfolded, claiming the lives of an estimated three million civilians. Meanwhile, a humanitarian crisis burgeoned at the borders as approximately ten million desperate refugees sought sanctuary in neighboring India, fleeing the relentless onslaught in their homeland.
It was one of the greatest genocides of the 20th century.
On a humid day, the 25th of July 1971, a nondescript stadium nestled in India buzzed with an energy that belied its humble facade. On the turf stood a team hailing from the throes of East Pakistan, ready to face off against a robust ensemble representing the Nadia district of West Bengal.
The captain of the East Pakistan squad solemnly unfurled a green banner adorned with the map that delineated the contours of a yet-to-be-recognized Bangladesh. A hush descended upon the stadium, only to be broken by the resounding applause and cheers from a crowd that seemed to swell in number.
With pride in their steps and fervent hope, the team paraded the symbolic flag around the pitch, raising it high to flutter with the Indian tricolor. A gesture that marked an alliance of solidarity, a beacon of what was yet to come. In that modest arena, the men representing East Pakistan weren't just playing a game; they were crusaders of a liberation movement. Bangladesh XI carried the dreams and aspirations of a nation on the cusp of birth. The fluttering flag was more than a piece of fabric; it was a declaration, a testament to the courage of a people fighting for their identity and freedom.
Where it all began
In 1947, the vestiges of British colonial rule receded from the Indian subcontinent, giving way to the birth of two fledgling republics: India and Pakistan. This division of territories ushered in a tumultuous period marked by a massive migratory movement of refugees traversing newly drawn borders to join the nation aligned with their religious affiliations. This migration ignited a cauldron of communal tensions, unleashing waves of violence, riots, and bloodshed, especially in the provinces of Bengal and Punjab.
The inhabitants of East Pakistan resonated more with the cultural and linguistic nuances of neighboring Indian states of West Bengal and Assam than with the dominant Punjabi and Pashtun ethos prevalent in West Pakistan. The disconnect was deepened by the unequal distribution of political power and economic resources, with Islamabad, the capital located nearly 2000 miles away in West Pakistan, holding the reins. The governance from afar perpetuated a disparaging view of the Bengalis in the East, unfairly branding them as inferior and lacking martial capabilities.
Sports and Politics
In the heat of the 1971 revolution, the interim government of East Pakistan tasked Shamsul Haq with forming a sports body. It christened the Bangladesh Krira Samity or the "Bangladesh Sports Committee." Almost immediately Haq gave birth to a 'national' soccer squad. The team was envisioned to serve as the harbingers of the revolution, embodying the spirit of independence and disseminating its fervent messages far and wide.
By the end of July, the team debuted in the vibrant atmosphere of Krishnanagar Stadium in West Bengal, India. The humble stadium brimmed with anticipation as spectators perched themselves on trees, walls, and neighboring terraces to witness the historic match culminating in a spirited 2-2 draw. Notable attendees included representatives from the exiled Bangladeshi government, including Prime Minister Tajuddin Ahmed. This event witnessed the inaugural hoisting of the flag that epitomized an autonomous Bangladesh, which would take place later that year after military interference from India.
Years later, an emotional Zakaria Pintu recounted that monumental day during an interview with the Daily Star, a prominent English daily in Bangladesh. "I still remember that day. Being the first person to hoist the Bangladesh flag outside the country was the most memorable moment of my life. It was also a historic moment for Bangladeshi soccer," he reminisced.
Yet, this act of flag hoisting was not without controversy, considering India's hesitance in officially recognizing Bangladesh's independence at that time. The Indian authorities initially attempted to dissuade the team from this symbolic gesture, relenting only moments before the match. The repercussions were significant, with the District Magistrate of Nadia facing suspension for allowing the official district team to participate and Nadia being barred from the Indian Football Association for a year, a punitive measure for hosting the Bangladeshi contingent.
The Inauguration of the Bangladesh Football Federation
The Bangladesh Football Federation (BFF) genesis dates back to 15 July 1972. The BFF joined the ranks of the AFC in 1973, followed by a FIFA affiliation in 1976. The leadership mantle for the inaugural national team was entrusted to former Dhaka XI chief coach, Sheikh Shaheb Ali, with Zakaria Pintoo, the erstwhile leader of the Shadhin Bangla Team, assuming the role of the captain.
The team's initial roster for their international debut in the Merdeka Cup of July 1973 included notable names such as Shahidur Rahman Shantoo, Abdul Motaleb, Monwar Hossain Nannu, and Dilip Barua. Making history, they embarked on their first official outing on 26 July 1973, drawing 2-2 with Thailand. This historic match witnessed Enayetur Rahman netting Bangladesh's first official international goal, followed by a strike from Kazi Salahuddin. Although the team couldn't clinch a win in the penalty shootout that followed, they marked their first victory on 13 August 1973 in a friendly against Singapore, with Nowsher securing the only goal.
The team's journey took a somber turn in August 1975 when they received the grim news of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman's assassination amidst their participation in the Merdeka Cup. Despite their initial decision to withdraw from the tournament due to the unfolding political crisis, they participated in a symbolic protest, marking their dissent with a half-mast national flag and donning black badges during their match against South Korea.
A period of inactivity followed until 1978 when Werner Bickelhaupt took the helm as the first foreign coach. However, the team faced internal discord leading up to the 1978 Asian Games in Bangkok, culminating in a mass resignation of players from Abahani in protest of the change in captaincy. This turmoil marred their performance in the tournament, prompting a shift in the selection of captains in the following years. Despite the initial setback, the team, under the guidance of local trainer Anwar Hossain, showcased a commendable performance in the 1980 AFC Asian Cup qualifiers, securing their place in the main event.
As they ventured into the 1980 AFC Asian Cup in Kuwait, now under the coaching expertise of Abdur Rahim, the team displayed a resilient performance, albeit facing heavy defeats in subsequent matches against formidable teams like Iran and China. Following this, the team achieved a significant milestone with a victory against Malaysia in the 1982 Asian Games, courtesy of a goal from Badal Roy. However, this victory was overshadowed by declining form, with the team failing to qualify for the 1984 AFC Asian Cup and suffering a disheartening defeat to Nepal in the 1984 South Asian Games final.
A deeply rooted love for soccer
Despite not being a major contender in the FIFA World Cup, the people of Bangladesh show immense enthusiasm for the tournament, indicating their deep-rooted love for soccer. The Dhaka league was a major attraction and the national team competed strongly against current Asian giants like Japan, South Korea, and Iran.
Beginning in March 2003, the Bangladeshi football team embarked on a turbulent journey through the 2004 AFC Asian Cup qualifiers, showcasing moments of promise, such as reaching the 2005 SAFF Championship finals, only to be overcome by India. The ensuing years until 2008 were marked by a string of lackluster campaigns, culminating in coach Abu Yusuf's dismissal and Shafiqul Islam Manik's brief tenure before the appointment of Brazilian coach Dido in 2009. Dido's period at the helm saw a fleeting revival, stifled by internal discord and alleged corruption.
The following decade oscillated between highs and lows, including a significant win against Pakistan in the 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifiers under the guidance of Nikola Ilievski and notable setbacks during the terms of coaches Lodewijk de Kruif and Tom Saintfiet, characterized by a deficiency of elite players and dwindling fan engagement. Jamie Day's tenure beginning in 2018 brought glimpses of resurgence despite being marred by a series of losses that led to his dismissal in 2021. Interim coach Óscar Bruzón then shouldered the Herculean task of revitalizing the team during the 2021 SAFF Championship, a mission that unfortunately further highlighted the team's ongoing decline, rendering the future of Bangladesh's national football team precariously uncertain.
A Bleak Affair
What once began as a brave venture has turned into a bleak affair. Bangladesh XI seems to have been born under a bad omen despite the courageous effort. No coach has been able to steer the national team into calm waters, let alone to significant achievements. In April 1996 Bangladesh reached its highest ranking in FIFA: 110th. July 2023 it ranked 189. The current coach, Javier Fernández Cabrera Martín Peñato (born 4 October 1984), is achieving decent results with his players. The team recently lost 1-0 to Kuwait and drew against Afghanistan, but it's far from revolutionary. Perhaps the country needs more time. Maybe it needs to return to its roots, and a Bangladeshi coach should be given the trust and time to build a team that upholds the nation's pride. The influx of foreign, often third-rate coaches hasn't advanced the game over time.
Former players like Zulfiker Mahmud Mintu and the legendary Alfaz Ahmed have embarked on new coaching careers and could be considered for the national coaching position. They are tempering expectations. Much must be done before one of them will take the national team's helm. Foreign coaches possess greater knowledge of what's needed, tactically and technically, regarding infrastructure and organization.
A flow-through, a clear vision and a multi-year plan are needed to coach top talentAs advised by many soccer experts, the key to resurgence lies in investing in district-level football to discover and nurture local talents. Clubs operate based on donations and maintain an amateur approach without plans for future development, such as youth training or infrastructure improvements. The Bangladesh Football Federation (BFF) has shown little initiative to address these challenges. In the past, district football leagues and school tournaments were the breeding grounds for top players. Sadly, these tournaments have almost vanished in the last decade, leading to a dearth of emerging talent and Bangladesh's plunge to its worst-ever FIFA ranking.
Positive Strides on the Horizon
As advised by many soccer experts, the key to resurgence lies in investing in district-level football to discover and nurture local talents. Mintu and Alfaz can play a pivotal role. The coaching profession in Bangladesh is slowly gaining respect, with growing interest from youngster and fans. Mintu says, "We're seeing a slow change in how coaching is viewed in Bangladesh, even with the challenges of bridging the knowledge gap among players. Those who overcome this hurdle are truly changing the face of coaching in our country."
Given the widespread lack of sport-specific education, the main obstacles are financial constraints and effective communication. Coaching in Bangladesh wasn't always seen as a reliable career because of its financial pitfalls, though recent years suggest a change. Alfaz mentioned, "Besides the inner satisfaction of seeing your team succeed, the coaching profession needs better financial compensation to match modern living standards. Addressing these issues would certainly make for a smoother coaching experience."
There is much to be proud of and even more to improve.
While Mintu and Alfaz are hopeful about the future for local coaches, there is a clear need for major infrastructure improvements for a brighter future. Mintu advises aspiring coaches, "The path forward looks promising. For up-and-coming coaches, understanding that coaching is a lifelong journey where learning and adaptation are crucial is vital. A solid educational foundation, especially in English, is powerful given that it's the primary language used in coaching resources."
Alfaz shared his anticipation, "I see a bright future and aim to lead my team to even greater success. I would encourage future coaches to demonstrate dedication, a deep understanding of the game, and unwavering commitment to nurturing both team and individual development."
The potential for a prosperous future is evident as long as the clubs and federation make the required infrastructure improvements to streamline the coaching process. There's much to be proud of; significant progress has been made since the revolution. The fight for independence remains an inspiration.
The country is still not the secular democracy people dreamt of in 1971 and Bangladesh XI is not where it ought to be.
The battle continues.
"We are slowly moving forward."