On Oct 6, 2022, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina held a press conference where she urged the people not to let even an inch of land go barren or unproductive. She has since repeated this call several times, urging everyone to help shore up food stocks and counter an impending worldwide crisis. Of the various government agencies, the Bangladesh Football Federation is perhaps the only one to have the keen insight to have already been working on it for several years by allowing the cultivation of vegetables on the outfield of Bangabandhu National Stadium.
The vegetable garden at the stadium extends from the athletic track to the fences of the Paltan side gallery of Bangabandhu National Stadium and supplies bottle gourd, eggplant, pumpkin, basella leaf, spinach, and carrot. The garden just shows how fertile the soil of our national stadium is in this arable country of ours and how we can use it to meet our nutritional needs.
The person responsible for the harvest has reportedly claimed that the former administrator had encouraged his ideas and efforts to build the vegetable garden. The project started in 1997 and it took 20 years for the general public to hear about it and, consequently, for the BFF to take any action after it went viral on social media in 2018.
Vegetables are not the only controversy surrounding the BFF.
On-field, the poor performance of the national team, with its failure to pass the group stage in the SAFF Championship four times during the tenure of current BFF President Kazi Salahuddin, has drawn heavy criticism.
Off the field, the allegations of mismanagement and misconduct are alarming.
The Anti-Corruption Commission opened an investigation into alleged money laundering and embezzlement of funds by Salahuddin and two other BFF official in 2019, asking for detailed records of the BFF bank accounts and its transactions. Salahuddin was the lone candidate for the 2012’s executive committee and won the election unopposed. The BFF investigation committee suggested fines against two clubs for alleged match-fixing despite there not being any provision for fines in the bylaws of the Bangladesh League in 2011 .
But perhaps the biggest failure, the one people jokingly refer to most often, is what Salahuddin called “Vision 2022”.
After winning the 2012 election, Salahuddin announced that he would be doing whatever was necessary to help Bangladesh qualify for the 2022 World Cup. This dream of Vision 2022 proved to be an utter disappointment. He claimed that his 2012 speech was not understood properly by the masses.
On Sept 21, 2020, Salahuddin told the media, “I think there is confusion among you. I never said that we would qualify for the World Cup in Qatar. We said we would try to qualify. We always have to have a plan along the way.”
The development of football in Bangladesh has been hamstrung by unfulfilled election promises, failure to maintain the league schedule, the lack of any feasible actionable plan to properly identify and bring up talented players from the grassroots, and alleged corruption.
One only needs to ask people of a slightly older generation or walk down memory lane with their parents to be reminded of what football meant to the people of this country. At one time stadiums were filled, streets were swarmed with club colours, work was halted for league matches that dominated the front pages of newspapers. Football was once a deeply beloved game for the people. Domestic games saw the same festive celebrations for modern-day Brazil or Argentina matches at the World Cup, but more vibrant.
Attempts have been made to restore that spirit, but their success or failure will not be apparent for some time yet. In 2012, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina herself urged the then newly-elected BFF committee to develop players and noted that modern training was necessary to produce stars. It took nine years for the BFF to establish their own football academy - the BFF Elite Academy.
Bangladesh managed to organise tournaments like the Super Cup, and Bangabandhu International Gold Cup, satisfying Salahuddin’s ambition to host at least four tournaments each year, except during the pandemic.
The arrangement of the Bangamata Sheikh Fazilatunnesa Mujib Gold Cup Football Tournament from 2011 started the rise of women’s football, which eventually brought successes like the silver medal in the SAFF Women’s Championship 2016 and, finally, the SAFF Women’s Championship 2022. In 2018, BFF joined forces with UNICEF to launch a nationwide girls’ football talent scout programme that not only aims for the development of football among girls but also works in addressing social issues such as gender inequality and child marriages.
Salahuddin’s manifesto for the 2020 BFF presidential election consisted of 36 points, of which the primary focus was raising the national men’s team’s ranking near 150 and the women’s team’s ranking close to 90 by October 2024.
The last time Bangladesh was ranked above 150 rank was in the second year of Salahuddin’s first tenure, with a rank of 149. Bangladesh currently ranks 192nd in the men’s national team and 140th in the women’s national team. Logically, any rank above 192 would mean getting nearer to 150. Only time can tell whether the time of the next BFF election will see the country develop a stronger footballing foundation, or whether we will still be waiting for the newest half-baked promises from the latest round of the manifesto.
This article was written for Stripe, bdnews24.com's special publication with a focus on culture and society from a youth perspective.