Sabina Akhter and her teammates have rolled back the clock in Bangladesh. On 19 September 2022, they defeated Nepal 3-1 in Kathmandu in the final to win their maiden SAFF Women’s Championship title.
Ever since that victory, Bangladesh, a country that has been engulfed in cricket for the last two decades, is talking about football. The champion team received a grand reception in Dhaka, multiple organisations have announced cash prizes for the players and their hometowns are also giving the players a well-deserved hero’s welcome.
Amid all the fanfare, another question is popping into everyone’s minds.
‘How far can this team go?’
Bangladesh went into the SAFF Championship with a team full of young promising players who have recently graduated from age-level football with the team’s most prolific scorer and experienced striker Sabina as captain.
It won’t be an exaggeration to say that the players almost surprised themselves by winning the championship and that too in such a convincing manner.
Bangladesh scored 23 goals in five matches and conceded just once. The opposition could hardly get the ball in Bangladesh’s half as they were busy most of the time trying to hold off the likes of Sabina, Krishna Rani Sarkar, Sirat Jahan, Maria Manda, Monika Chakma, etc, and failing miserably.
The reaction of the Bangladesh Football Federation (BFF) president Kazi Salahuddin shows how unexpected this triumph was.
“I thought this team will become champions in 2024. At that time, most of the players will be 22-24 years old. But they have become champions two years before that. This is incredible,” Salahuddin told the press a day after the SAFF Championship final.
After achieving a goal the players, coaches and federation had been striving for, for so long, the question that naturally comes up is ‘what’s next’?
According to the BFF president, the next step would be to do better in Asia. But he didn’t explain, at least not in front of the media, exactly what he means by that.
Bangladesh has never qualified for the AFC Women’s Asian Championship. Bangladesh last competed in the qualifiers tournament in September 2021, but couldn’t make it out of the group phase, losing to Jordan and Iran by an identical margin of 5-0.
In the qualifiers tournament, 32 teams competed, split into eight groups – four groups with four teams and four groups with three teams. The champion team from each group moved onto the quarterfinal stage of the tournament and booked their place in the Asian Cup.
Those eight teams joined four prequalified teams, the previous edition’s champion, runners-up and second runners-up and host India.
The next Women’s Asian Cup Qualifier tournament is expected to be held in 2025. To qualify for the 2026 AFC Women’s Asian Cup, Bangladesh would have to top their group where they are likely to be slotted with higher-ranked teams.
Making through the qualifiers would be a mean feat. But if somehow Sabina and her teammates can go past this hurdle, they will compete in the biggest women’s football competition in the continent and will have an opportunity to book a place in the World Cup.
The Women’s Asian Cup works as the qualifiers tournament for the World Cup. The top six teams of the 12-team Asian Cup directly qualify for the most prestigious competition in women’s football.
The seventh and eighth teams get to play in a continental play-off against a team from another continent, with a spot at the World Cup on the line.
But it’s much easier said than done. Bangladesh is currently ranked 31st out of 35 Asian countries in the FIFA women’s team rankings.
However, the Bangladesh women’s team has already shown that they are much better than the rankings would suggest.
Bangladesh dominated India and Nepal in the SAFF Championship, who are ranked 12th and 21st respectively in Asia.
Before the SAFF Championship, in June in Dhaka they also squashed Malaysia 6-0, who are 18th in Asia.
What’s more heartening for Bangladesh is the fact that the majority of their players are in their early 20s.
Goalkeeper Rupna Chakma, defenders Akhi Khatun, Shamsunnahar, Masura Parvin, midfielders Monika Chakma, Sanjida Akhter, Maria Manda, Rituporna Chakma, forwards Krishna Rani Sarkar, Sirat Jahan, Tohura Khatun are all aged between 18-21.
Sabina, at 28, is the only player in the team who is aged over 25.
Usually, footballers enter their best years in their mid-20s and in that sense, the majority of players in the Bangladesh women’s team are yet to peak.
By the time the 2025 Qualifiers come along, these players should be at the peak of their abilities and become more mature.
Still, playing in a World Cup feels like a very distant dream. For now, if this team can somehow overcome the qualifiers hurdle in the Asian Cup, it would be a monumental achievement for Bangladesh football.
But perhaps the worst thing for this golden generation of women’s footballers would be to limit their ambitions. The federation thought the players can win the SAFF Championship when the majority of the players are at their peak, which they expect would come two years in the future.
This team has already blown past those expectations. The reality is no one knows how far this team can go. They could all get blinded by fame or become a victim of complacency or they could keep going strength to strength, continue climbing up the ladder of success and take Bangladesh’s flag to the World Cup.
Time will answer what happens next. But for now, these girls deserve our gratitude as because of them we can now dare to dream.