Bangladesh in Bengaluru with hopes of a berth in the semis

The Bangladesh football team has landed in Bengaluru for the SAFF Championship 2023BFF
All Bangladesh have to show for is the title win in 2003. Bangladesh made it to the final of the SAFF Championship twice more but so far the 2003 championship win remains their lone success. So naturally, one question is coming up before the start of another SAFF Championship in Bengaluru on Wednesday– will Bangladesh end their title drought this time? This is an attempt to gauge the distance between expectations and reality–

There is no hope, or is there? Both hope and despair are accompanying the Bangladesh football team as they head into the SAFF Championship.

Despite several attempts, the media couldn’t make the Bangladesh coach or the captain utter the line, ‘We want to win the SAFF’. Whenever coach Javier Cabrera and captain Jamal Bhuiyan spoke to the media in press conferences or during training, they have always avoided the issue. They keep saying the same thing, “We will go match by match. Let’s see how far we can go. We believe that we can play the semifinal.”

But in order to reach the semis, Bangladesh will have to push aside either Lebanon or the Maldives to finish second in the group. It’s possible but also seems quite improbable. If Bangladesh can hold on against Lebanon and defeat the Maldives, they will remain in the top four race of the SAFF Championship in Bengaluru. It shouldn’t be too difficult to earn a win against Bhutan in the final group-stage match. Bangladesh could also mathematically make it to the semifinal.

Bangladesh will begin their campaign against Lebanon

The condition for that to happen is they have to achieve something incredible against Lebanon and the Maldives. But both those teams are stronger than Bangladesh. Bangladesh losing to Lebanon in their first match is the expected result. There is no guarantee that the Bangladesh team can defeat the Maldives. So it’s better for Bangladesh to accept the reality and manage their expectations.

Still, a faint glimmer of hope is shining in Bengaluru. Bangladesh managed to pull off a 1-0 win over Cambodia in a FIFA friendly match on 15 June. On 12 June Bangladesh defeated a Cambodian Premier League side by the same margin.

While boarding a flight to Bengaluru from Phnom Penh on the back of those victories, Bangladesh captain Jamal said, “Winning those two matches has boosted our confidence. Our first target is Lebanon. It will be good for us if we can get one or three points from that game. We will go match by match. But our main target, of course, is the championship.”

The captain knows very well that the current Bangladesh team doesn’t have the pedigree to become champions. In a tournament where Lebanon, India and the 1982 World Cup participant Kuwait are playing, Bangladesh emerging as champions would be a huge surprise. But does this Bangladesh team even have the capability to spring a surprise in the ‘South Asian World Cup’, is the big question.

Bangladesh have won the SAFF only once in 2003
File photo

Bangladesh, however, is not thinking too far ahead. For now, they are only thinking about making it to the semifinal. For example, Bangladesh team’s forward Mohammad Ibrahim said, “Our first aim is reaching the semifinal. But it won’t be an easy task as Lebanon and the Maldives are in our group.” This is the talk currently happening in the Bangladesh camp. Everyone is saying, reaching the semifinal would be a huge challenge.

That’s why other than Jamal Bhuiyan no one else said anything about becoming champions. Defender Topu Barman said, “We will begin the tournament aiming for a spot in the semis. That’s what we are thinking about at the moment. If we can make it to the final and become champions, that would be a big achievement.”

Goalkeeper Anisur Rahman would have to play a huge part if Bangladesh are to qualify for the semifinal. Anisur said, “In the two friendly games in Cambodia, we didn’t concede any goals. That’s a positive thing. I feel if all of us can give their best, we can play the semifinal.”

The Bangladesh team’s manager Amer Khan feels that the team is ready to give their best to earn a spot in the semifinal. This former Bangladesh international feels that everyone in the side is aspiring to do something great. Amer said, “I’ve told everyone, give your all on the field. You have to dream to win the trophy. The team selected by the coach has that ferocity. The coach is handing chances to the juniors. They are trying hard. The seniors are trying hard. This is a plus point.”

Bangladesh assistant coach Amer Khan

Bangladesh team’s assistant coach Hasan Al Mamun has tasted the SAFF championship triumph. He was the left-back of Bangladesh’s 2003 SAFF Championship winning team. From Bengaluru, he said that he is liking the frame of mind the Bangladesh team is currently in.

“Right now, the only thing on our minds is Lebanon. We are aiming for a spot in the semifinal. After reaching the semifinal, we will aim for the final and then to become champions.”

If the Bangladesh team can turn this dream into reality, that will be incredible.

*This report appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ashfaq-Ul-Alam Niloy