This article was published in the August issue of Sports Tribune magazine
Jafar Iqbal is like those youngsters who play in top European Leagues: someone who displays their sheer talent at lower divisions to climb quickly to the top-flight league. There, they may spend a year or two at a low-budget outfit before moving to big-budget club only to spend the whole season on the bench.
Jafar's case also brings forth how a lack of youth tournaments and a proper scouting system has barred many young football talents from being taken notice of by the top premier league clubs, as well as the national team authorities.
From a school-going footballer, living in the suburbs of Bandarban town of the Chittagong Hill Tracts to becoming one of the capital's top club players, along with making it to the national side, Jafar’s story is exceptional in itself.
From hill tracts to port city
Jafar spent his childhood playing football at the sand-covered fields on the bank of Sangu river, close to the Bandarban town. A 12-year old Jafar and his family moved to the current house at Bandarban sadar upazila's Bonorupa neighbourhood six years ago.
The new location is around two kilometers away from the district stadium and Jafar used to join his Bonorupa friends to go all the way and play football at one portion of the field while the larger parts was acquired by the seniors.
“I soon caught the attention of the senior brothers and started playing with them. At that time I was studying in class seven at the Bandarban government school. I got into the school football team and helped them become champion in the inter-school district championship in 2013,” said Jafar while sharing his childhood memories with Dhaka Tribune.
“Our school became runners-up in the divisional round the following year and while playing there, I caught the attention of the local clubs of Chittagong. A pioneer league club from the city's Madarbari area offered me a contract. I ended up becoming the top-scorer (13 goals) in my debut season and was named the best player.”
Life in the capital
Jafar informed that he was soon offered contracts by some big clubs in the port city, including Chittagong Mohammedan Limited, but he rather chose to try his luck elsewhere in the capital, eventually going from Chittagong to Feni.
“I passed the trial at Feni Soccer Club, who were building a young squad for the club youth cup (BFF U-18 Development Cup). It was a memorable tournament as I gave my best to show what I'm capable of and at the end of the event, I met [Syed Golam] Jilani sir there,” he reminisced.
At that time, Jilani was working on scouting players for the BFF's football academy in Sylhet, the first-ever academy project that closed down soon afterwards. Jilani was closely following the youth tournament and during the game between Feni and Abahani, he was there to judge the best performer. He ended up handing over the best player award to Jafar.
“He scored one and assisted another for a mediocre side in such passion that I noted down his contact number after the prize-giving ceremony. I was the BFF academy coach and he was exactly the one I was looking for,” said Jilani.
“The young footballers at BFF academy were lost. They weren’t sure what they would do after the project shut down but wanted to continue the game. I put them together, along with Jafar and [Mahbubur Rahman] Sufil, and sent all of them to Dilkusha Sporting Club to play in the Third Division.”
From 3rd division to top-flight
Along with Jafar, youngsters like Sufil, Mohammad Abdullah and
Bishwanath Ghosh from that Dilkusha team are now big stars in the premier league and key members in the national squad, recalled Jilani proudly, before adding, “Playing from the Third Division to the top-tier, he (Jafar) achieved many things in just a year. If he keeps up the good work and plays with responsibility he will achieve many more things in future.”
Jafar's nine goals helped Dilkusha emerge as champion and as many as five players from the squad were roped in by premier league outfit Arambagh Krira Sangha, including Abdullah, Sufil, Robiul and Arif. Guided by head coach Saiful Bari Titu, a young and spirited Arambagh exhibited brilliant football during the league and finished runners-up in the Federation Cup.
There, Jafar caught the attention of the then Bangladesh's Belgian head coach Tom Saintfiet prior to the crucial Asian Cup qualifying play-offs.
National team experience
Five days after making his international debut during a friendly against Maldives, Jafar was selected in the starting XI against Bhutan in the first leg of the play-offs on September 6 in 2016, which ended in a goalless draw in Dhaka. Jafar however, was not among the playing members when Bangladesh suffered a shocking 3-1 defeat a month later.
The senior national side did not play a single match for the next 17 months but Jafar continued to shine on every occasion he got. The most astounding among them was against India during the Saff U-18 Championship 2017 in Bhutan.
There, he scored a brilliant brace, along with providing an assist for Sufil, and earned Bangladesh a remarkable 4-3 win after scripting a comeback from 3-0 in the opening half. Jafar had, by then, become a key member in the senior side by the time the national team returned in action through a friendly against Laos in March this year. There, he scored his first and only international goal.
Time to prove
The 20-year old Jafar never played for the same club for two consecutive seasons, despite his consistent performances, and it was no different at Arambagh. He moved to the big-budget Chittagong Abahani Limited prior to last season, only to experience a lack of playing time at the club. He started only two matches for the port city outfit in the league last season but made 13 substitute appearances.
Jafar has two crucial tournaments to prove his worth in the next two months: the Asian Games football starting August 14 in Indonesia and the Saff Championship beginning September 4 at home.
English head coach Jamie Day is currently in charge of the national team for both events.
“Jafar has good ability with the ball, can be direct and dangerous in the attacking area. He still needs to work on a few areas of his game which we will work on over the next four weeks but he has done well so far,” commented Day on Jafar before the national team left for South Korea last week.
Name: Jafar Iqbal
DOB: September 27, 1997 (Age 20)
Place of birth: Bandarban
Height: 165 cm (5 ft 5 in)
Playing position: Left winger
Current club: Chittagong Abahani Limited
Major teams: Arambagh Krira Sangha, Bangladesh, Bangladesh U-23, Bangladesh U-20
Senior caps: 3
Senior goal: 1