Why is the SAFF Champion women’s team breaking up

One after one, the players are quitting the game. The head coach is also set to step aside. The SAFF Champion Bangladesh team is falling apart

SAFF Champion Bangladesh women's football teamBFF

In just eight months since the monumental achievement of winning the SAFF Championship, the Bangladesh women’s football team has seen the flip side of the coin. The excitement over the SAFF champion Bangladesh women’s team seems like a distant memory of the past. One after one, the players are leaving the team.

After getting dropped from the national team’s camp, SAFF winners Anuching Mogini and Sajeda Khatun said goodbye to football. The very day Sirat Jahan Shopna announced on Facebook that she is quitting professional football, the women’s team coach Golam Rabbani Choton announced he will be leaving his post. The latest update is that defender Akhi Khatun has also left the national team’s camp and left for home.

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There are rumours that Akhi will get married and leave for China with her soon-to-be spouse. Akhi supposedly will join a camp in China with his help. She told the Bangladesh Football Federation (BFF) that she is leaving the camp to be with her sick mother. She, however, didn’t specify when she will return. So, the Akhi chapter in Bangladesh football is as good as over.

Coach Choton, who has been an ever-present figure in the country’s football, will officially send his resignation to the BFF. The way things are running, a few more players could also say goodbye to football. The coaching staff members are also not happy. One of the coaches, who didn’t want to reveal his name, said that the coaches might not want to work any longer under the supervision of technical director Paul Smally.

Bangladesh women's national team footballers celebrate win against Nepal in the final of SAFF Women's Championship in Kathmandu, Nepal on 19 September 2022

A successful team is on the verge of disintegration. But why, that’s the question currently on everyone’s mouths. Captain Sabina Khatun and her teammates had shown promise of achieving so much more. Then why are they walking away right now?

For female athletes in Bangladesh, the matter of marriage inevitably always comes up. It’s not at all unusual to see female athletes in Bangladesh quitting sports under family pressure. In cases like that, there is nothing much BFF can do.

But saying that Shopna and Akhi are leaving because of ‘marriage’ is a feeble attempt of the BFF to avoid the reality. Sources in the team have said that the girls have grown disillusioned for many reasons. They are feeling let down from sitting around and not playing any matches. They don’t see any ray of hope.

The players carry head coach Golam Rabbani Choton on their shoulder after winning the final of the SAFF Champions 2022 against Nepal in Kathmandu on 19 September 2022

It has been almost eight months since they won the SAFF Championship. They are yet to play a single match since then. The salary of the players also hasn’t changed. The new franchise league that was about to start is also uncertain. All in all, the players are frustrated.

Bangladesh won the SAFF Championship in Nepal last September. After that, the BFF didn’t send the team to Myanmar for the Olympic qualifiers citing a lack of funds. They were also talks of arranging two practice matches ahead of the qualifiers which, much like the trip to Myanmar, got killed off. BFF then tried to send the team for a FIFA friendly in Singapore, but Singapore declined the offer.

The players were optimistic about the women’s franchise league, hoping this will help them earn a decent sum. But after the glossy logo launching event, the BFF has been dead silent about the league. The tournament was supposed to start this month, but it hasn’t. BFF began promoting the tournament before finalising the details.

The federation is saying the league will begin next month, but there is no visible progress on that front. The girls now raise the same question to the coaches every time they go to practice, “Sir, what’s the point in training so much, if we don’t get to play!”

Bangladesh women's team has been inactive in the eight months since winning the SAFF Championship
File photo

Shopna had an offer to play for the Odisha team in India’s domestic league. But she didn’t get the permission from BFF to take part. She was told, “You don’t need to go to India, play in the franchise league.”

She is one of the eight icon players in the franchise league and was set to earn Tk 400,000 (Tk 4 lakh). But now the league itself is uncertain and she hasn’t received a penny of her proposed salary. Not just Shopna, none of the players have received any money from the league. Heartbroken, Shopna decided to quit football.

The salary of the SAFF champion players has remained the same, despite BFF’s promise to increase it. Captain Sabina earns Tk 20,000 a month. The rest have a monthly salary of around Tk 10,000.

Moreover, the players haven’t been receiving this small pay-cheque since April. So in the current scenario, why should the girls stay at the BFF headquarters away from their families? This frustration is causing the team to gradually break up.

After Choton announced he will be quitting soon, BFF president Kazi Salahuddin sat with the senior players of the team. In the meeting, he said that he will increase the players’ salary when the federation gets a sponsor on board.

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

But the girls no longer have any faith on his promises. The promises of increasing salaries, a franchise league, a FIFA friendly against Mongolia in July is longer enough to appease the players.

The BFF president, however, tried to normalise players leaving the camp, saying that’s just how life works.

“If the old players leave, new players will replace them. That’s what happens. So, I won’t say that the team is breaking up. Besides, it’s their lives, they get to decide what they want to do. We can’t keep anyone against their will. We are not worried. We have players in the pipeline. The blanks in the team will be filled up.”

Maybe the gaps will be filled or maybe they won’t. But the abrupt end of such a golden period is an ominous sign for the country’s women’s football.

*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