This feature comes courtesy of Matt Walsh. Check out more of Matt's fantastic work at South Africa World Cup Blog.
Zesh Rehman stood pensively, shifting his weight from foot to foot, as the rain lashed down onto the track at the Bangabandahu National Stadium. The shock of neon green in his uniform stood in stark contrast to the drab Dhaka skyline. On paper, Pakistan should win this match easily. To a man, they are bigger, stronger, and more experienced than their hosts, with multiple starters plying their trade in Europe or Australia. This is Bangladesh, however, and normal convention doesn't really apply here. Rehman, the former Fulham defender, is a long way from the banks of the Thames today.
Football occupies a strange place in Bangladesh. For many, Bangladesh conjures images of poverty, natural disasters, or perhaps for the more enlightened, 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank. It certainly doesn't conjure anything to do with football. Like much of the sub-continent however, this country is football mad. From the hundreds of knock-off Brasil and Argentina shirts for sale in the markets of Old Dhaka, to the murals of Messi and Villa adorning the walls of homes in remote hilltop villages of the Kasia indigenous people, football is everywhere.
With the highest population density on the planet (outside of a handful of micro-states, none of whom scratch the surface of Bangladesh's 160 million population), every available surface, at seemingly every time of day, is populated by football playing men and boys. Sure, one can say that cricket is king here, as the 2011 Cricket World Cup, in which Bangladesh hosted a number of matches, can attest, but ask any child on the street his favorite sport, and more often than not he will reply with the beautiful game.
I am brought back to the footballing reality of Bangladesh as I walk into the Bangabandahu National Stadium for a Bangladesh Premier League relegation battle between two Dhaka sides in late May. My ticket welcomes me to the "2007 Bangladesh League", a reminder that everything is recycled here, even optimistically printed football tickets. The armed police barely acknowledge me as I saunter out onto the track, just meters from the pitch. Members of the home side leisurely walk past me on their way to the changing rooms after warm ups. They greet me with perplexed looks; not many foreigners bother with domestic football here, unless they are the smattering of African journeymen who find themselves playing here each season.
In fairness my face shows equal confusion; their kit sponsor is Bwin.com, and online gambling is something I suspect not many Bangladeshi's partake in. The rest of the shirt looks suspiciously like the Real Madrid home strip with a makeshift patch sewn on the chest, where the regal crown topped crest of the Madrid giants would normally lie. When the LFP patch on the arm confirms my suspicions; that a team in the premier division is using knock-off Real Madrid kits with their own patch sewn on, I realize that I too, am a long way from the world of professional football I know and understand.
When I first heard that Bangladesh had been drawn with Pakistan for a two legged play-off in the initial round of Asian qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup, I could hardly believe my luck. I envisioned a baying crowd of 50,000 packing the stadium, roaring on the home side as they battled their eternal enemy. Surely the love of football combined with the intense pride Bangladeshis feel for their nation and its history would make this a once in a lifetime football experience? After all, Bangladesh was once East Pakistan, the poorer and more populous half of a union which was torn apart in the 1971 Liberation War. Depending on whose estimates you believe, between 300,000 and 3 million Bangladeshis were killed by Pakistani forces before they were defeated by a combination of fierce Bangladeshi resistance and a concerted Indian invasion. With such a catastrophic war occurring within the lifetime of many Bangladeshis, these wounds still run deep; if you talk with any Dhaka native long enough in the street he will soberly recount for you the story of the war and Bangladesh's eventual victory. To have this played out once again over a crucial two-legged qualifier seemed an incredible way to experience the football and politics of South Asia all rolled into one.
The pitch is beyond salvation, I am half expecting the referee to simply not allow play to start. As monsoon season begins, warm air coming from the Bay of Bengal rushes north only to smack into cool air emerging from the wall that is the Himalayas, just over Bangladesh's northern border. The result is not so much rain as it is water being violently flung to earth, relentlessly, all across the delta that is Bangladesh. The practical effect of this today is that the pitch for our key qualifier was saturated before it began. I am greeted with shrugged shoulders in the VIP section when I ask if the Federation has considered installing artificial turf, as most nations in my current home of Africa have done in conjunction with FIFA. Pakistan grumbled about the pitch from the beginning, hinting that the return leg in Lahore would be where they would win the tie. The Bangladesh camp was relatively quiet on the other hand, likely due to the astonishing fact that the national side has had four managers in the last three weeks.
After Croatian Robert Rubcic simply returned home without even collecting his last paycheck in early June, Macedonian Gjorgji Jovanoski took over, only to be sacked immediately as he refused to travel to Pakistan on security grounds. That probably should have been an interview question. Lesson learned. A Bangladeshi member of the technical staff was briefly appointed interim manager, before another Macedonian, Nikola Ilievski, finally took the reigns, with scant more than a few days to assess his new charges and form a side capable of beating a theoretically superior Pakistan team. With seemingly unending internal turmoil, the recent finish of a grueling league season, and an opponent boasting numerous foreign based players (Bangladesh has one, yet to be capped), the Bengali's seemed to be in deep trouble. Hardly. Pakistan never stood a chance.
When I excitedly mentioned to some of my Bangladeshi friends in Dhaka that the match with Pakistan was coming up and we should attend, I was met with various responses, most falling somewhere between bemusement and couldn't-care-less. "Uh, yeah, so what?", "Oh, Bangladesh national team? Hmm, yeah, no thanks." "I'm not sure I'm free that day." Admittedly, I was baffled. I hadn't quite grasped yet the mindset of the South Asian football supporter.
I had personally played football with most of these people in various tournaments and friendlies. They wore Premiership kits, backpacks, slippers, key chains. They also seemed quite proud of their heritage, culture and nation (as most Bangladeshis fiercely are). I didn't understand. Surely this was a can't miss opportunity, a way to combine two of the things which hold immense importance in their lives? A chance to watch your countrymen battle your fiercest rival in the sport you hold most dear?
Despite all the seeming advantages Pakistan enjoy, they are blown away. With a completely waterlogged pitch, their physical superiority is rendered moot. With the Bangladeshis familiar with these types of conditions, they quickly adjust to play what seasoned observers of the beautiful game would recognize as beach soccer. Rather than play the ball along the ground, they flick it up to themselves, and use a series of deft volleys, lobs and flicks into space or to a teammates thigh or chest. Pakistan is two steps behind at all times, closing space far too late, and leaving freeway size gaps all over their defensive line. Bangladesh take quick advantage, with a precise ball into the right corner leading to a first time cross and diving header, which skids into the side netting. Less than a minute gone, Pakistan yet to touch the ball, 1-0 to the hosts. The rain soaked crowd is delirious.
Pakistan begin to settle, but still are unable to adjust to the fact that they cannot play along the ground. Bangladesh increase the pressure and it is soon 2-0. This could get ugly fast. Chance after chance fall to the hosts, but the pitch takes a toll on them as well; finishing is difficult when the ball is in a puddle. Pakistan trudge back to the changing room at halftime looking utterly defeated, their previously vibrant kits unrecognizably brown. At this point it is only a matter of how many they will concede. Fortunately for them, the continued trend of poor finishing, and pouring monsoon rains, only allows Bangladesh one more goal in the second half. 3-0 is a deficit Pakistan will be confident they can overturn in the heat and dry conditions of Lahore.
In the two weeks leading up to the match, I had secured the relatively reluctant commitment of a few friends to attend with me; we now faced a new problem, obtaining tickets. It was beginning to dawn on me at this point that the apathy I had encountered among friends was not the sole preserve of the Dhaka elite, who had access to the Premiership on a regular basis, whether that be via satellite TV, brand new kits, or trips to Old Trafford. The media was also in (or not in) on the act. There are a number of English language papers in Bangladesh (Bangla script is still not yet my forte), their sports coverage on a daily basis consists of three things: Cricket news, Brasil and Argentina national football team news and everything else.
In two months reading the paper in Dhaka I saw more photos of Lionel Messi training with Argentina than I have seen of anyone training anywhere. One thing noticeably absent from this was any significant coverage of the national side. Even the Bangladesh domestic league got a photo or two when a big match occurred. The national side was a different story. One morning I was greeted with a half page color photograph of Clint Dempsey taking on a Guadeloupe defender in the Gold Cup; buried underneath was a 50 word blurb on the fact the Bangladesh national side manager had been sacked. Somewhat inevitably then, obtaining tickets became a nearly insurmountable task.
I stood on my tiptoes outside the entrance to the VIP section of the national stadium. Throngs of young men in Liverpool and Arsenal shirts surged against the line of armed police trying to enter; they could see the teams lining up through the tunnel, increasing the frenzy; I was just trying to identify my contact. Unable to procure tickets beforehand, and my small group having all pulled out for various reasons in the days leading up to the match, I was solo. One friend in particular took pity on me and texted me a phone number. "Go to the stadium and call this number when you arrive". Ok, sure. What I didn't know was that on the other end of this phone number was a former Bangladesh international, who played for Pakistan before 1971, and Bangladesh after. During the Liberation War, rather than fight, they were ordered to tour the Muslim states of India, playing friendly matches in front of hundreds of thousands, raising money for the cause of Bangladeshi liberation.
Two minutes after he identified me (easy enough) and dragged me through the hordes, the police line and into the glittering VIP section, I found myself face to face with another legend of Bangladeshi football, arguably one of their greatest ever players. They would be my company for the match. As they regaled me with stories of their playing days, their battles on the pitch with European giants; with Pakistani soldiers off it, in the cool air of the VIP section, the familiar sense of bewilderment took hold once again. It is quite a common feeling in this country; it can be a very jarring experience for a visitor. The warmth of the Bangladeshi people is legendary to the point of bafflement for some used to Western interactions. One minute I was a normal punter standing outside the stadium, ticket-less in the rain, the next I am sitting in a brand new VIP box with two legends of Bangladeshi football swapping stories as if I was their oldest friend. I am hardly naive; I understand I have access to these things only because I am a foreigner interested in Bangladeshi football, few of my kind exist; and I am fortunate enough to know people who can arrange access with one text message. Although the nagging sense that something is amiss never really disappears, the incredible experience of interacting with Bangladeshi people sets it aside in a place far away.
Bangladesh is a nation of contrasts, muddled in some cases, crystal clear in others. With all respect to Ireland, Bangladesh is the greenest place on Earth, those who have been to both will surely agree. This is reflected in its national flag, a sea of green, pierced by a circle of deep red; representing the blood spilled for its language, its people, its freedom. This contrast is one that is easily understood. Others are not. An intense love for football, an even fiercer one for their nation; transposed against a keen disinterest for the national side, even against a young nations oldest foe. Familiar explanations are trotted out; level of play, no media coverage, I nod in agreement, but inside I am not so sure. Like most things here however, if you push you often end up with more questions than answers, so I demur. After all, this is Bangladesh, and one of the many reasons why I love this place; normal convention doesn't really apply here.
Since this article was written, Bangladesh held Pakistan to a 0-0 draw in Lahore, sealing their advance on aggregate, 3-0. They moved on to play Lebanon in another two-legged affair, losing the first leg 4-0 in Beirut. They will try to overturn the deficit in Dhaka on July 28th.