One is a winger, the other is a striker. It’s important for them to be in sync on the football pitch, which Sanjida Akhter and Krishna Sarkar are. But what I didn’t know was the deep friendship they shared outside of the field. I got to know of it in an hour-long engaging chat. I’ll explain a bit later why I had this chat with these two players in particular.
Before that, let me tell you where and when this took place. Place: BFF Bhaban. Date: 22 September. A day earlier, the Bangladesh team returned and enthralled the entire country with their celebrations on an open-roof bus. I had gone to the BFF Bhaban to mainly take an interview of captain Sabina Khatun. I had to wait a little for her because the BFF president Kazi Salahuddin was in a meeting with the SAFF champion players.
After that, they had to attend an unofficial meeting with technical director Paul Smalley and the women’s wing chief Mahfuza Akhter. The BFF president called me to that meeting. While talking about the achievements, problems and potential of women’s football, a thought came to me suddenly, why just Sabina, why shouldn’t I speak with one or two more players. That led to my chat with Krishna and Sanjida.
I’ll explain why it was specifically them. My guess is that you probably have already guessed why. After scoring two goals in the final, Krishna’s name was on everyone’s lips by then. The people were chanting Sanjida’s name even before the final, after her Facebook status went viral.
I had spoken with them once or twice before. I didn’t know them well enough to have a heart-to-heart discussion. Age difference is also a big obstacle. The first challenge, hence, was to make them feel at ease. That was accomplished with a 10-minute chat before switching on the voice recorder. The presence of my Prothom Alo colleague Bodiujjaman, who has been following the journey of these girls for many years, also played a role. The hour-long chat ended in a blink of an eye. The reason behind that was the chemistry between Krishna and Sanjida.
I was wondering whether I would be able to bring out the mischief, banter, leg-pulling, laughter and the things they conveyed through their expressive faces, in a write-up. Finally, I decided it would be better to publish selected portions of our chat. My only regret now is that their facial expressions and mannerisms will be absent.
Utpal Shuvro: Sanjida, who are you closest with in the Bangladesh team?
Sanjida Akhter: I spend the most time with Krishna di. But, I have a good relationship with everyone.
Shuvro: What about you Krishna?
Krishna Rani Sarkar: Same as her.
Shuvro: So you spend more time with Sanjida, but you have good relations with everyone…
Shuvro: I asked this to Krishna when you guys were in Nepal. All you girls live together. Don’t you quarrel ever?
Sanjida: We have arguments and all. But those never last long or linger, it's all over in a moment. We are actually like a family.
Krishna: Actually, how can we argue with each other? All of us live together, we have meals together, we play together… How long can we keep sulking after an argument?
Shuvro: Krishna, when did you first meet Sanjida?
Krishna: I first met her in 2014, during the Under-14 AFC Cup, which we failed to qualify for. And we became friends in 2016.
Shuvro: I get that you will remember when you guys first met, but how can you remember the date when your friendship started?
Krishna: I remember the year, not the exact date.
Shuvro: How did you become friends?
Sanjida: Both of us play up front. That’s why we had a good understanding between us and a strong bond.
Krishna: When we were playing at the Under-16 level, Sanjida used to play at the wings, I played at the striker’s position, No. 9.
Sanjida: Say, that you liked the way I played…
Krishna: Zip your lips (smiles)… Actually, I scored most of my goals from her passes.
Shuvro: I get it, you have to keep good relations with the winger… otherwise who will pass you the ball to score!
Krishna: No, nothing like that. Her crosses were always great.
Shuvro: You mean she could cross the ball well from the wing.
Krishna: Yes. She comes from Mymensingh, a girl from the working class… She has strong legs.
Shuvro: Sanjida, in your viral Facebook status you spoke about the struggles of the people living in hilly areas. But looking at you, it doesn’t seem like you have endured many hardships. You seem like a pampered girl from a wealthy family. What was your childhood actually like?
Sanjida: We are four sisters and two brothers. However, our financial state wasn’t too bad. I come from a middle-class family. During the harvest season, huge amounts of paddy used to come to our house. During that time, I would help out a little. Other than that, I did no work in my house. I have two older sisters. They and my mother would do most of the work. I used to just roam around, eat and play. This was my work.
Shuvro: You were among the group of girls from Kalsindur school that came to Prothom Alo’s founding anniversary event...
Sanjida: Yes, I did come to that event.
Shuvro: How was that experience?
Sanjida: That was the first time I went to the Sonargaon Hotel. Prothom Alo did a big story on us. Then, under Anisul Hoque sir’s initiative, a documentary was done on us, Redoan Rony bhaiya was also involved with it. We got a massive response from that, Kalsindur went viral.
Shuvro: There was a hilarious scene in that documentary. You girls were playing football when a man from the village brought cucumbers for you all. You told him, next time bring salt with the cucumbers.
Sanjida: From my childhood, I was always the talkative type. I like to talk a lot and socialise with people. Now, some people say that I don’t talk much, don’t socialise much… However, I don’t know if that’s true.
Krishna: You’ve become a celebrity now…
Sanjida: There is a person in our village who has a big cucumber farm. We used to play, so he would treat us to cucumbers. So during the shoot, when he brought the cucumbers for us, I said that. I said that in jest, but I didn’t think that this would go viral (smiles).
Krishna: You are a celebrity, that’s why… (smiles).
Shuvro: Who is the most mischievous in the Bangladesh team? If it’s Krishna, then I need to hear it from someone else. I don’t think she would admit it herself…
Sanjida: She is a secret prankster!! The others are more direct.
Shuvro: Krishna, Sanjida is saying that you are a secret prankster…
Krishna: No, no, no, never in my life have I been that. That’s a lie!
Sanjida: All of us are more or less mischievous.
Krishna: I’m an independent party. Neither Awami League, nor BNP. Isn’t that right?
Sanjida: I don’t support any party. I say it as it is, straight to the face. Whoever that may be…
Shuvro: Doesn’t that cause problems?
Sanjida: Even if it does cause problems, I won’t be in any trouble. I only speak the truth.
Shuvro: Any examples? Imagine, BFF president Kazi Salahuddin said something that you didn’t like. Can you reply to that to his face?
Sanjida: Salahuddin sir only says good things. Once, we were invited to sir’s home. Paul sir (Paul Smalley) had just arrived. He gave us such a heavy workload that I used to lie down on the ground and cry. At Salahuddin sir’s home I told him, “Sir, I can’t play football anymore. It’s too difficult, Paul sir overloads us with work. Whatever we have eaten in your home, he will make us regurgitate it before we even digest it properly. Tell him to reduce our load, otherwise we can’t play.” Since then, whenever I meet Salahuddin sir, he says, “Sanjida said this, didn’t you Sanjida? Now do you see where you have reached?” Today, when he said the same thing, I said now I can run for far longer than I could before. Now, I don’t say no anymore, nor do I cry.
Shuvro: How do you spend your free time at the camp? You don’t get much time for Facebooking, I heard you are given access to mobile phones for a specific period of a specific day…
Krishna: We watch TV, we chat among ourselves. If someone wants to study, she can. We have fun.
Shuvro: Both of you are studying economics at AIUB, right?
Krishna: The two of us and and Monika (Monika Chakma).
Shuvro: Why did you choose economics?
Sanjida: I could’ve picked another subject, but decided on economics. I have a few friends there. I thought they could help me out, so I chose this subject. The teachers also help me.
Shuvro: Do you like to study? Do you carry books with you?
Sanjida: I don’t have any books for university.
Shuvro: Really, you don’t have any books? Is everything online?
Krishna: Yes, everything happens online.
Shuvro: Do you attend classes regularly?
Krishna: No. I think I have gone to the university only thrice.
Shuvro: Sanjida, one of your Facebook posts went viral before the final. It was a post that was worthy of going viral. Every word of it was beautiful. How did that thought come to your mind?
Sanjida: When you are in a situation like that, automatically such thoughts come to your mind. When you see something like this with your own eyes, then spontaneously such thoughts will come to you. Even a few days back, I didn’t have a Facebook page. But there were many fake IDs using my name. Krishna di opened my Facebook and Instagram pages.
Krishna: Right after the pages were opened, Sanjida went viral. Why wouldn’t she, she has a beautiful face. In Bangladesh, everyone loves good looking people (smiles).
Sanjida: The people of Bangladesh support me a lot. I have made it this far because of their support.
Krishna: The people of Bangladesh support the rest of us also.
Sanjida: Now they definitely do, especially after we became SAFF Champions…
Krishna: They used to support me even before that, didn’t they? (Looking at Bodiujjaman) Tell me Milon bhai, didn’t they support me?
Shuvro: Returning to Sanjida’s Facebook post. What prompted you to post something like that?
Sanjida: My fans and followers want to know about our activities. That’s why I post at least once a day. That’s why I posted that on Facebook before playing the final. The hilly areas, the 11 of us who will step onto the field… These thoughts were running through my mind… I didn’t post it to go viral. But we actually needed the open roof bus.
Shuvro: You posted this at night, the next day the entire nation was talking about it. You heard about that in Nepal, right?
Sanjida: We are not allowed to carry our phones, so we can’t see anything that’s going on. The day of the match, Litu sir (assistant coach of the Bangladesh team Mahbubur Rahman) said, “You have gone completely viral, the whole of Bangladesh is obsessed.” He showed me that a lot reports were done about my post. I felt a little happy. I felt, whether we win or lose, we have already gained the love of the people. They were saying, even if you lose it’s ok, you have already won our hearts. It felt even better to hear that.
Shuvro: Krishna, like Sanjida you also said that the open roof bus was necessary. Why?
Krishna: This was a record in Bangladesh. Because, I don’t know if anything like this has happened before.
Shuvro: It hasn’t.
Krishna: We were very happy, the people of the country were also happy. Because of the open roof bus they could become a part of our journey, they could share our joy.
Shuvro: Sanjida, what does it feel like now when you go home? The little girl from Kalsindur is now a mega star, she is seen on TV, her picture appears in the newspapers, what do the people from your locality say?
Sanjida: Now, everyone feels proud. Earlier, many people used to say many things. Now, everyone sings our praises.
Shuvro: Do people from other villages come to see you?
Sanjida: That goes without saying. Now, sometimes I feel hesitant going home because of this (smiles). People from far away come to visit our home. Many bring gifts… pens, diaries, storybooks… They click selfies, say, “I’ve seen you on TV, now I’m seeing you for real, I’m so lucky!”
Krishna: Now, even more people will come…
Shuvro: Krishna, how big of a star are you in Tangail?
Krishna: I’m the only player from Tangail. Chhoton sir (Bangladesh team head coach Golam Rabbani Chhoton) is also from there. My home is Gopalpur of Tangail. I get great response in my locality. After returning home, the upazila chairman, councilor and many such people spoke with me over the phone. Many other people from the area have also spoken with me. Our house is right beside the road. Everyone now knows the house as ‘Krishna’s house’.
Shuvro: Sanjida, who is your favourite player?
Shuvro: Do you like Ronaldo only as a player or are you also a fan of his looks and style?
Sanjida: Looks don’t matter. Pele wasn't great looking, but people still loved him. Why did they love him? Because of how he played…
Shuvro: Krishna, a little while ago I was speaking with you about dribbling, didn’t you say Ronaldinho is your favourite player?
Krishna: No. I notice everything about all the players. Whatever I like, I try to include it in my arsenal. I practice accordingly.
Sanjida: She only talks about Messi, she is crazy for Messi…
Krishna: (Smiles) I’m a big fan of Messi. But I respect all footballers. Especially Neymar, Salah…
Krishna: Not Mbappe (smiles).
Krishna: Mar-ce-lo… no…
Shubhro: But Marcelo is a defender.
Sanjida: He is a very good player. He is a defender, but scores goals.
Krishna: I also really like Hazard. I’m a big fan of his skills. During World Cups, I notice the different skills and tricks these players show.
Shuvro: Do you have a favourite club or team in international football?
Krishna: How many can I name a favourite? I watch matches of every team.
Shuvro: Favourite club?
Krishna: I won’t say it.
Shuvro: Sanjida, do you have a favourite club?
Sanjida: Real Madrid. Hala Madrid.
Shuvro: And country?
Sanjida: I used to support a country, but I don’t like doing it anymore. Because, the people tease a lot, they make me start crying. I used to support Brazil, I was teased so much after they conceded seven goals… Now I don’t support anyone in particular.
Krishna: In that World Cup, me and my father were Argentina supporters, the others in our home supported Brazil. After that match, for seven days none of them left the house (smiles).
Shuvro: Sanjida, how many Facebook followers did you have before the SAFF, and what’s the current number?
Sanjida: Earlier, it was around 250 thousand. Now, it’s over 400 thousand. I have the most followers on Facebook and Instagram.
Shuvro: Krishna, you opened Sanjida's Facebook-Instagram pages, and now she is saying that she has the highest number of followers…
Krishna: What can you do… she is Bangladesh’s poster girl… What’s the point in getting angry? She has also received offers to act in dramas.
Sanjida: After doing two commercials, I was offered a role in a drama. During the shooting of the commercials, I could guess what I needed to do even before receiving instructions from the makers. I still have offers to work as a model in a couple of commercials. But I don’t think I will do them. I am with football, I don’t want to focus on anything else. I just want to stay with football.
Shuvro: Would you do it after you stop playing?
Sanjida: Not even after I retire. After quitting football, I have aspirations to work if I get a good job. But not modeling.
*This interview appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ashfaq-Ul-Alam Niloy