Sunday, June 23, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

The beautiful game

Update : 17 Jun 2014, 06:39 PM

A resounding roar erupts across the lake in Shahjadpur. It’s after 4am and characteristically calm, with nothing to break the silence except the calls of frogs and crickets – and the sound of football. Argentina has scored and all is right with the world of Argentina fans. And there are heaps of them, all along the way from Dhaka to Chittagong, the roads, rooftops, and cars are covered in Argentine flags, but also Brazil, Germany, France, South Korea, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Iran, England, and Japan – I’ve even seen Switzerland. Personally, I love it.

Bangladesh is World Cup mad. The appetite for it here is insatiable and it’s wonderful because it’s not just the football that gets us, but also the internationality of the whole affair. We love that it’s all about national colours and flags. It’s the World Game, the world’s game.

Sure, there are other international sporting meets, the Olympics for example, which in fact brings together the entire family of nations (and even features football), but nothing works quite as well as the FIFA World cup – the last final of which had more than 800 million viewers, making it the most watched sporting event in human history. To put that into perspective, consider these – the largest human congregation was 60 million people at the Maha Kumbha Mela in 2001, and the largest Hajj gathering was 3 million people. Clearly, football is a major world religion.

But the World Cup is more than just football. It’s politics, it’s war, it’s international relations, it’s nationalism, it’s hopes, it’s dreams, it’s music, it’s passion, it’s pride, it’s rivalry, and when you consider the hairstyles, the uniforms, and the fan get-ups, it’s even fashion. 

An Iran-US game invokes the ghosts of embassies past, Brazil versus Portugal is a colonial score settling, Africans see it is as an opportunity to show the world what their underestimated continent is capable of, and Asia, well Asia is all for throwing it back in the face of those who once humiliated it. 

But that’s the undercurrent. On the field, the event is about the sport’s own entrenched rivalries – between Europe and South America, Brazil and Argentina, Italy and France, England and Germany.  It’s also about the players. Football players are superstars.

In a most gladiatorial sense, they are their nation’s prize-fighters, and they put on a spectacular show replete with skill, sex appeal, machismo, and class. And they love it, and we love them. We love them so much that we pay them pots of money to play the beautiful game, ever so beautifully.

But in spite of all the money thrown around, football, probably more than most other sports, is still a people’s pursuit. It’s a great leveller, and manages to transcend rigid class hierarchies to present us with a world where all that really matters is how well you play. Being accessible to so many of the world’s poorest for its sheer simplicity, it is one of the more straightforward ways for an aspiring star to make their mark on the world scene.

The game is filled with examples of this – Pele being the most celebrated one. Primary school textbooks carried his story when I was a child because the fact that a poor boy from Brazil can make a handsome living and become one of the most recognised names in the world through football is incredibly inspiring, and speaks volumes about the game’s relevance and potential.

Football, like other sports, can also be a potent tool for development. When I heard that the Ivorian Didier Drogba had donated millions of dollars to establish a hospital and a school in his hometown, I wasn’t the least bit surprised. He was simply following in Pele’s footsteps, whose philanthropy is legendary.

Numerous other athletes and football players have given considerable amounts of their substantial earnings back to their communities. This is the multiplier effect that is set into motion when a child from a small village or town manages to break into the international arena. He or she will of course benefit personally, as will their families, but the spill-over will also benefit their communities and anyone else who is inspired by their success in ways that have a perpetual quality.

And it doesn’t end there. Developing a footballer to be world class also means that international clubs – always on the lookout for fresh talent – will pay good money to the local club that he or she may currently be playing for, as well as, of course, paying the player an international footballer’s salary.

All of this leads to an inward flow of global capital, which can bolster a local or even a national economy. Transfer fees are big business. Football is big business, a fact that we are yet to appreciate here in Bangladesh.  

Quality football requires investment. This might sound like a contradiction of the previous paragraphs, but it’s not. Football still remains a grassroots game but that’s as far as recruitment is concerned. It’s egalitarian because you don’t have to come from the “right” families, go to the “right” schools, and belong to the “right” social background to be in contention, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a need for proper training and development. 

Some might say that a football academy isn’t much different from a private school, and they are probably right. But the difference is evident when you consider that only raw talent is needed to produce a world class player, in contrast to the type of schooling and social orientation that is required to create a white collar professional. And anyway, many great players have never needed to see the inside of an expensive football academy.

But before we can develop football talent, we need to develop the football infrastructure and the links that connect fans to teams, teams to tournaments, tournaments to international exposure, and international exposure to international teams. In Bangladesh, football is still only seen as a sport and its potential as a business, as a profession, and as means to fulfil a social responsibility remains as yet, untapped.

But all that will change. Once the connection between football and business, and football and development becomes indelibly clear, there will be an unstoppable upsurge of interest followed by a torrential outpouring of investment. And when that happens, the World Cup roar outside my window will not be for Argentina or for Brazil, but for our very own Bangladesh. 

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