Bangladesh are blazing a trail for female footballers in south Asia | Football

After going their separate ways in 1971, it is hard to say that Bangladesh or Pakistan are football hotbeds – though there is a greater love for the game than many realise – but the former seem to be on the way if September is anything to go by. That was when the women’s team returned home from Nepal with the South Asian Championship trophy to be greeted by excited fans at the airport, plenty of cake and an open-top bus for a journey to federation headquarters in downtown Dhaka, a route lined by thousands of fans. “The way all the people of Bangladesh prayed for us was incredible,” said captain Sabina Khatun, who also ended as top scorer with eight goals. “So this trophy belongs to the entire nation and the people of Bangladesh. I didn’t know there were this many fans of women’s football.”

The plaudits were deserved as the Bengal Tigresses were dominant in Kathmandu. India had won all five of the previous tournaments but were defeated 3-0 in the group stage. In all there were 23 goals scored in five games on their way to the title with just one conceded, in the 3-1 win over the hosts in the final on 19 September –spare a thought for Nepal who have now reached the final in five of the six championships and lost all of them.

The only setbacks came on the way home. Some players had luggage and money stolen at the airport (the federation compensated them), Ritu Porna Chakma needed stitches after banging her head on a billboard on the parade route and, much to the annoyance of social media, once the stars arrived at federation HQ for a press conference, they had to stand for 45 minutes behind seated male officials.

Bangladesh captain Sabina Khatun makes a speeche at a press conference in the conference room of the Bangladesh Football Federation headquarters.
Bangladesh captain Sabina Khatun (fourth from left at front) makes a speech in the conference room at the Bangladesh Football Federation. Photograph: Sazzad Hossain/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

Obstacles have been present for the women in their careers. “The win ended our 12 to 13-year-long wait,” said Khatun. It has been a long journey from her hometown of Satkhira, just on the eastern side of the border with India. “Initially when girls went to play football at Satkhira PTI field, they faced a lot of criticism but we conquered it all by winning the SAFF Women’s Football Championship for the country,” she added after being greeted by thousands of people upon her return home.

There is hunger for more. The next step is obviously more investment in the domestic game, something which is reportedly being discussed at the highest levels (and the prime minister Sheikh Hasina took time out from the United Nations General Assembly to promise cash bonuses for the players) all in a bid to go from being top dogs in south Asia to challenging on the continental stage. “We have to look ahead now,” said BFF president Kazi Salahuddin. “We have to play bigger teams like Japan, Korea, Thailand. We may lose by big margins but we have to learn. If we can’t do that, this victory will be meaningless.” The next Asian Cup is in 2026. “Hard work paid off. But our target is far bigger and we will build our team according to that,” he added.

The Bangladesh players enjoy an open-top bus parade after winning the SAFF Women’s Championship trophy.
The Bangladesh players enjoy an open-top bus parade after winning the South Asian Championship trophy. Photograph: Sazzad Hossain/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

There are envious glances coming over from Pakistan. There has been money available over the years for the federation but little has reached the places it was meant to and, overall, there have been more examples of incompetence, mismanagement, corruption and political infighting than actual games. The men haven’t played since June 2019 and had just 13 games in the five years before that. For the women, this was their first appearance in south Asia since 2014. Pakistan have been one of the more dysfunctional nations of world football and few were surprised when Fifa stepped in with a ban in April 2021 that was only lifted 14 months later.

The Green Shirts had been placed in the more difficult of the two pots, losing to Bangladesh and India but thrashing Maldives 7-0, a first victory in eight years. Despite that little piece of history, the women made headlines for other reasons. “As you know we belong to the Islamic Republic of Pakistan which is an Islamic country, I want to ask why are these girls wearing shorts, not leggings,” one reporter asked the team’s manager and other officials at a post-match press conference.

It provoked anger at home. Television presenter and actor Anoushey Ashraf stepped in to blast the reporter on Instagram to her 362,000 followers and tell him to stick to reporting on sport. “The girls choose [what to wear], and we’ve all been exposed to religion as much as anyone else and make informed choices. But as a man him worrying about their ‘nikker’ is cringeworthy.”

Not only cringeworthy but with all the corruption and goings-on in Pakistan football, some wondered why journalists had not previously posed questions of those who run the game. “Did the Islamic Republic of Pakistan’s journalists ever bother to ask when money is stolen? When positions are exploited? When corruption is done,” asked squash player Noorena Shams. “Why does all this boil down to the clothes of women? I wish they would be vocal about every wrong deed in our country.”

The support for the women has been encouraging however and if, and it is a big if, the federation can get its act together and provide support, facilities and good old-fashioned games then Pakistan can perhaps follow the path forged by Bangladesh, one that leads to open-top bus parades, cake and bonuses rather than talk about bare legs.

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