Let’s start with a dive back in time to 1987, thirty-two years ago, when both Abahani and Mohammedan playing in the league final took a decision that left many surprised and the fans of both sides happy. That day, with the final game underway, the whole of Dhaka city was preparing for an extensive face-off between the fans of the two teams because, in this derby, no one wanted to lose. And it was customary for all Abahani-Mohammedan matches to end with some sort of violence or fracas. Rabid supporters engaged in pitch battles on the road using hockey sticks, rods and bricks while the more sedate fans resorted to colourful and innovative forms of derision to undermine the opponents. Of course, football hooliganism can never be supported but the intense passion of the supporters and their unwillingness to concede defeat indicates the popularity of domestic club football in the 80s.
Thirty-two years ago, both the teams finished the stipulated 90 minutes with a goalless draw and then, decided to become joint champions in order to prevent any outbreak of disorder and to satisfy fans of both sides. Form a position at the top, football, especially, local club football, is now in the abyss. No one even knows when the league is on or when the Abahani-Mohammedan match will be played.
In contrast, today, the talk everywhere is about the upcoming European Champions League final where two English sides will be facing each other after two dramatic and unforgettable semi-final matches.
Obviously, the thrill of top-flight football cannot be compared to anything else but the question is why did the intense passion for local teams fizzle out? The reason may lie in the failure of the national team to produce any concrete result in the South Asian meets plus the overwhelming success of cricket in the international arena.
In 1987, sporting glory meant the national football team beating Thailand, Indonesia and comfortably disposing of regional teams like Nepal, Bhutan and the Maldives. While cricket lived in the shadows, with hardly five thousand people showing up for domestic cricket league finals. The tables have turned with cricket reaching the apex and football almost on the verge of oblivion.
In the wake of so much excitement over European football, many do not know that in 1988, Mohammedan SC won the first leg of the Asian Club Championship here in Dhaka, beating Iranian champion ‘Persepolis’, known then as Pirouji, to move to the final round where they won against North Korean champions ‘April 25’ and drew against eventual Asian club champion ‘Al Sadd’ of Qatar.
In club ranking, Mohammedan SC was among the ten best clubs from Asia. Abahani on the other hand regularly beats East Bengal, the Indian champions. This was also the time when Bangladesh beat Thailand for the 1990 World Cup qualifiers in Dhaka by 3-1.
The success of clubs in the international arena, the steady supply of top-class players and a nationwide belief that maybe Bangladesh can play the World Cup in twenty years, made football the major sport to follow.
Today I see social media frenzy over European games while once, supporters arranged mass slaughter of cows for feasts to celebrate the victory of their preferred team. Abahani-Mohammedan craze saw the entire city draped in flags of both sides, black and white for Mohammedan and blue and yellow for Abahani.
Supporters organised special prayer sessions before the Dhaka derby while the city administration went on full security alert to thwart any post-match violence. On match day, everything in life became secondary with newspapers running stories on what the players ate at lunch before heading off to the stadium. Crackers exploded, fans went into a frenzy when the teams took to the fields – the players like gladiators basked in adulation and praise.
Bangladesh football is making slow strides forward but unless the national team wins the South Asian championship two or three times in a row, the frenzy of the 80s will only be a memory.
Towheed Feroze is a news editor at Bangla Tribune and teaches at the University of Dhaka.