The grim end to a fairytale

SAFF champion Bangladesh team celebrate their triumph on an open roof bus in DhakaProthom Alo file photo

Remember reading fairytales when you were younger?

Every story would be different, but it would have some familiar beats. Whether it was Cinderella, Snow White or Peter Pan, in the end, all conflict would get resolved, good would triumph over evil and everyone would live happily ever after.

The SAFF Champion Bangladesh women’s team’s story is no less than a fairytale.

Before becoming national icons by lifting the country’s maiden SAFF title in women’s football, they were just a group of girls from remote corners of the country, most of them living below the poverty line and with little to no future prospects.

Their lives could’ve followed the familiar script of most girls from rural communities– completing school, enrolling in college, getting married off at a young age and then waiting on the whim of their husband and in-laws to know whether are permitted to study any further, go into an occupation or are they to spend the rest of their lives doing household chores.

But their destiny was different. This group of girls found a purpose in life and its name was football.

Bangladesh women's football team celebrate after winning the SAFF Women's Championship title at the Dasarath Rangasala Stadium in Kathmandu, Nepal on 19 September, 2022

Football is a beloved sport in Bangladesh. kids across the country play it for fun and people of all ages watch it on the screen. But despite its popularity, football was never a game for all. It was strictly reserved for the boys.

Girls who wanted to play the game with boys would be forced to swap their footballs for dolls and household chores before hitting adolescence.

So, the struggle of these players to become footballers started much before they stepped foot on the field. These young girls had to battle poverty, social taboos and the ire of their community just to get a chance to play the game.

The fact that these girls managed to step on the field and play is a heartwarming story in itself. But what they did next, elevated their story to a fairytale.

It’s no wonder that a player like Sirat Jahan Shopna has announced her retirement at just 22. Defender Akhi Khatun has reportedly left the national team’s camp for good and head coach Golam Rabbani Choton is also set to step down.

These girls jumped through the ranks of school football, divisional football, age-level competitions, excelling at every level, before finally making it to the national team.

Their journey to the national team is an incredible story of triumph against adversary. But these girls didn’t just stop here.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the Indian sub-continent is the backwaters of world football. For countries in this part of the world, playing in the FIFA World Cup is next to impossible. So, in these parts, SAFF, a regional football competition, holds great importance. To many, this is the ‘World Cup of South Asia’.

In 2003, Bangladesh men’s team triumphed in the SAFF Championship and claimed its maiden trophy. But the story in the following two decades has been of heartbreak and disappointment.

Bangladesh women's football team captain Sabina Khatun

So, in 2022, when Sabina Khatun and her team went to Nepal for the SAFF Women’s Championship as one of the favourites, the country’s football fans were cautiously optimistic that the long wait for a SAFF triumph will finally end.

The girls raised hopes further by netting 20 goals and conceding none on their way to a showdown with hosts Nepal in the final.

Although Bangladesh’s goalpost got breached once in the final, they scored three past the Nepal goalkeeper to register a historic win in Kathmandu.

They had done it, the Bangladeshi girls were now the best football team in South Asia. Sabina, Sanjida Akhter, Rupna Chakma, Shamsunnahar, Maria Manda and co. were the toast of the country. And they received a welcome fit for heroes when they returned to Bangladesh.

The champion team on top of the open top bus
Prothom Alo

The SAFF champions were greeted by thousands of fans at the airport after landing in Dhaka. They then got on top of a custom made open top bus and paraded the city in a celebration the likes of which this country had never seen before.

This was just the beginning of their felicitations. They were then awarded individual prizes, handed financial rewards and received grand receptions in their home towns. The same locals who once ridiculed their dreams, were now standing in the crowd to catch a glimpse of them.

If this was a fairytale, the story would end right here. The last page of the book would have the image of the entire team on the roof of the bus rejoicing with a caption below saying, “And then they lived happily ever after…”

But life is not a fairytale.

In fairytales, we accept the ‘happily ever after’ ending, don’t question what happened next. In real life, stories don’t end like that.

Almost eight months have passed since then. After triumphing in the regional competition, the young Bangladesh team should’ve naturally looked for a bigger challenge.

The next step for the team should’ve been carving out a place for themselves at the continental level. And to do so, they had to play against tougher opponents consistently.

But the complete opposite of that has happened since their triumph in September. Forget playing against higher ranked teams, the women’s team hasn’t played a single game since defeating Nepal in the final.

They were supposed to play in the Olympic Qualifiers in Myanmar. But the Bangladesh Football Federation (BFF) announced they won’t send the team just days before the competition, citing a lack of funds.

BFF claimed no one wanted to sponsor the team and also said the government was reluctant to give the funds. But both these claims seem hard to believe.

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The women’s team is incredibly popular in the country and any company would benefit from sponsoring their trip. The champion women’s team has also been lauded from the very top of the government. So, it’s very hard to believe that the government wouldn’t give BFF the funds.

Whatever the real reason may be, the fact is that the team couldn’t take part in the competition. Furthermore, the much talked about women’s franchise league has also seemingly stopped on its tracks, further adding to the frustrations of the players who are chomping at the bit for some competition.

The players are also still making next to nothing in salary. Despite winning the SAFF Championship, their monthly wages has remained the same.

So, it’s no wonder that a player like Sirat Jahan Shopna has announced her retirement at just 22. Defender Akhi Khatun has reportedly left the national team’s camp for good and head coach Golam Rabbani Choton is also set to step down.

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Players and coaches are leaving the team one by one like passengers jumping out of a sinking ship. Still, BFF president Kazi Salahuddin, the captain of that ship, is claiming that things are normal.

But to everyone else, it’s clear that the tale of Sabina and co. is nears its end and unlike the fairytales in books, this story is heading towards a grim ending.