Hopes of football glory for Bangladesh was not far fetched once upon a time
With the World Cup football fever gripping the country and flags of Argentina and Brazil being sold by street-side hawkers, one feels compelled to go back in time to a period when we could actually savour the dream of playing in football’s gala event.
Wait a minute, I said, we could dream; that means there was some reason for the fantasy to be woven.
Bangladesh also beat Brazil and, mind you, not by a single goal but by six clear goals. Today, when the Argentina fans deride their Brazilian opponents, the game they refer to is the drubbing by Germany.
But long ago, Bangladesh also inflicted a massive defeat on Brazil, though it was an age-level meet called the Gothia Cup, held in Sweden.
The Bangla FC went to the final to beat Pequeninos do Jockey, Brazil, and while the tournament did not feature national sides, the teams donned the national colours.
Hence, Brazil were in yellow and Bangladesh in red.
I bet many of you are stunned. Well, the truth is, Bangladesh under-14 beat their Brazilian counterparts to win the trophy.
We beat Brazil, World Cup is not far away
That moment when the news of the Bangladesh victory came, I was on the Azimpur Government Colony football field, watching a local area tournament semi-final. It was 1990 and football was the leading sport in the country.
Bangladesh and India almost inevitably went to the final of the regional meets and though at that time, we had not won the South Asian title, Bangladesh was deemed a formidable side, capable of winning against any South-East Asian team.
All throughout the 80s, football maintained an unassailable position, with club teams invincible on home soil. In 1988-89 Asian Club Cup meet, Mohammedan SC of Bangladesh beat the Iranian champions Persepolis 2-1 here in Dhaka to move to the final round, where our boys beat the North Korean champions by one goal and drew 2-2 with eventual Asian champions Al Sadd of Qatar.
That same year, Indian champions, Mohun Bagan, also went to the second round and conceded 10 goals in two matches, with a six-nothing pulverization at the hands of Chinese side Guangdong Wanbao.
Today, Persepolis is ranked among the top ten Asian club teams whereas Mohammedan or any other Bangladeshi club team is absent from the list of 300 teams in Asia. East Bengal of India is within the first 50, along with two other Indian club sides.
In 1989, Bangladesh beat Thailand comfortably on home soil during the World Cup 90 qualifying; so, when the decimation of Brazil came, the nation was ecstatic.
The euphoria, however, waned when BTV broadcast the recorded match later on. As far as I recall, it was an under-14 tournament and, to be honest, a few of our players, who possibly reduced their age in their passports, looked much older.
Bakhtiar was the man of the match, though I felt he was almost 17. Anyway, if the passport says he is under 14, one can’t do anything.
The crux of the matter was that the Bangladeshi boys had won big in Europe and that was all to spark a World Cup dream.
The matter was raised in parliament, members unanimously voiced their optimism about the future, and then came the famous victory of the national team against the South Korean University at the President Cup final.
Country in seventh heaven, World Cup beacons
When Bangladesh won the President Cup in Mirpur in 1990, the country was overtaken by a wave of unrestrained football craze.
I was present at the Mirpur stadium to witness the final match. After the stipulated time ended 1-1, the match went to tie breakers where goalkeeper Selim became the hero of the nation, blocking a shot and winning the cup.
It was also the year of the World Cup, and the year when the romance of Bangladesh making it to the dream competition began to proliferate.
Frankly speaking, there was some logic behind the hopes too.
Just a year before the Syrian national team had lost here in Dhaka to the Bangladeshi blue side, Southeast Asian nations did not appear to be too formidable and, against Arabian sides, the losses were by two to three goals.
Mohammedan SC in 1989 lost to Saudi champions Al Ittifaq by 3-1.
“If we can work on the current triumphs then surely, by 1998, we can become one of the top teams of Asia,” football gurus rhapsodized.
There was a genuine belief among all that by some way or the other, we could just make it.
Alas, reality is cruel
The real picture today appears harsh, to say the least.
Bangladesh cricket is now our pride; we have played the World Cup, we have beaten the best sides, and yes, we can hope with conviction to win it in not too distant a future.
As for the football World Cup, all dreams are dead; whether Bangladesh can reach the semi-finals of the SAFF tournament to be held here in Dhaka next September is uncertain.
Our club champions, Abahani, were recently drubbed 5-1 by the Maldivian champions, New Radiant Club, whereas in 1993-94, Radiant were decimated by Dhaka Mohammedan by 8-0.
Well, so much for our hopes of making it to the World Cup! At least there was a time when we could romanticize; sadly, those memories often come back, not as sweet evocative ones, but as thorns to prick us.
Where the hell did we go wrong?
Towheed Feroze is a journalist, teaching at the University of Dhaka.