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From losing to minnows, to trembling the giants

  • Published at 07:01 pm November 26th, 2019
Bangladesh's Saad Uddin gives his side the lead during their World Cup and Asian Cup joint qualifiers match against India in Kolkata Tuesday AFP

This article was published in the October issue of Sports Tribune magazine

Bangladesh had gone through an unwanted phase of 17 months without playing a single competitive match since their appalling defeat against Bhutan, before making their return to the international arena with a friendly against Laos in March last year. 

The men in red and green, since then or perhaps a little bit earlier than the Laos friendly, started rising from the ashes gradually to become a force to be reckoned with in recent times, even against Asian champion Qatar.

Losing by five goals or a bigger margin was an usual scene against the stronger teams in the 2015-16 season, but after the long break from international football, Bangladesh have not lost any game by more than two-goal margin.

Since that period, the Bengal Tigers have lost six times out of a total of 16 matches they have played thus far till 2018-19, a breath of fresh air from the previous times.

The changes are not only evident in scorelines only, but also in the playing style, the newly adopted diet and discipline, the attitude and, remarkably, in the fitness of the players.

No matter which opponents they have faced in the past year or so, they never stopped fighting till the final whistle, and bagged six wins and three draws along the way.

But it was not those wins, including two consecutive dominant victories against Bhutan in the last one month which garnered the most praise, but the recent draw against India and narrow defeat against mighty Qatar. 

Prior to facing 2022 World Cup host Qatar, Bangladesh were languishing 125 places below the opponent in the Fifa ranking, and 83 spots behind India.

But on both the occasions, it was the men in red and green who created the most chances with a comparatively young side.

The tactician behind such an upward graph of the national team is head coach Jamie Day, a new face in the international coaching arena but a disciple of Arsene Wenger no less during the Frenchman’s golden period at Arsenal.

All ready to take the challenge, the English coach understood one of the key points that the Bangladesh players lacked before, and sought hard work from the national booters in his first day in the job.

The footballers had to be fit, committed and dedicated enough to play for the country despite all of its infrastructural, financial, organizational, as well as technical limitations.

Former head coach Andrew Ord perhaps kicked off the wind of changes and ideas but the Australian couldn’t stay longer to see the outputs as he quit the job immediately after the Laos friendly on March 27, 2018. 

Jamie Day landed in the town within three months and even before he took charge officially, he studied the team and decided who his captain would be. 

Ord called back Jamal Bhuiyan, who was not first choice under the tutelage of former Belgium coach Tom Saintfiet’s short term, but Day knew exactly what he needed to do.

“Jamie messaged me before coming to Bangladesh, ‘I believe in you and I want you to become the captain of the team and forget about the past. If we work together we can achieve something good.’ If the coach had good faith in me, of course, I can give something back,” said the current Bangladesh football sensation Jamal.

“People were cursing at the national team before but under Jamie, we started getting some positive results. People are now surprised about our game because we don’t concede many goals, but of course we have to score more goals too.

“Jamie is a young coach and played football before, so he knows how a footballer feels like and what we are going through. He helps us a lot, speaks a lot and makes fun of the players a lot and I think every player has a good bonding with him.”

The changes in training, diet and attitude of the players came into place simultaneously along with the fitness under the stewardship of Day. 

The old faces who couldn’t fit into the system had to leave and the new ones, especially the youngsters, were taking their places eventually. 

The initial stage of this test was the Asian Games in Indonesia in August-September last year, followed by the Saff Championship 2018 and Bangabandhu Gold Cup 2018. 

Bangladesh made history by qualifying for the knockout stages of the Asiad for the first time, but the performances in the latter two tournaments, regardless of the results, were enough for Day to gauge the capability of the players in less than six months in charge.

Defending and counter attacking based football was not unusual while playing against bigger teams, but it became more fruitful on the pitch when the players became more fit, disciplined and organized.

The players became more aware of their role on the pitch and it was clearly evident during Day’s first year in the job. 

Only three out of 23 from the defeat against Bhutan in October, 2016, kept their places in the World Cup and Asian Cup joint qualifiers squad. 

Before the matches against Qatar and India, Day fielded almost all of his XIs with 4-2-3-1 formation, but in essence, the 11 players were seen all over the pitch, always charging the opponent players, forcing them to make mistakes and breaking the opposition defence on the counter, only to be let down by a lack of finishing touch.

Day couldn’t hide his excitement upon taking the challenge of the World Cup qualifying fixtures.

All the group opponents at that time were ranked much higher but the English coach, along with the players, were eager to show just how much they had improved over the last one year. 

Day very well knew his charges couldn’t outplay the opposition in terms of possession and technique, but he had his own weapons – the tactics and the fighting spirit of the players. 

The first opponent was Afghanistan at a neutral venue in Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe on astro turf where Bangladesh players are not used to playing, but it didn’t matter much. 

The Afghans controlled the game with their much better physical capacities and technical prowess, but Bangladesh left the pitch conceding a solitary goal that was almost saved.

What’s more, Bangladesh were denied a penalty appeal right at the end that could have been given as a foul on another day.

The formation was changed slightly for the game against Qatar in their first home fixture.

Day switched to 4-1-4-1 with the aim of blocking the fast attacks on the wings. 

It was feared the game may become a one-sided affair because of the yawning gap in ranking between the teams, but Day’s side exhibited such a good display that they actually created around half a dozen scoring chances on the muddy pitch of Bangabandhu National Stadium in front of a vociferous home crowd.

The number of spectators was almost triple at Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata when they played India five days later.

The team performance got even better whilst sticking to the same formation, but the players seemed to be in a more spirited and fighting mood than the previous encounter. 

They surprised the host from the very beginning and could have been on the front foot within just a minute had the referee not overlooked a clear foul on Mohammad Ibrahim inside the penalty area. 

India dominated possession but Bangladesh stayed solid at the back, while the four midfielders moved in a line to support them, blocking the wings and countering continuous threats in every transition. 

A brilliant set piece taken by Jamal allowed Saad Uddin to score Bangladesh’s first goal in the qualifiers before the break, but a lack of concentration in the 88th minute however, cost them their first win over India in 16 years.

“We have created, and been solid in all three games so far, and deserved more points, but we already have the same amount of points as the last time (eight matches) in World Cup qualifiers. The improvement has been massive and pleasing to see how far they have come,” said Day.

Bangladesh didn’t get the services of their key center-back Topu Barman, defensive midfielder Atiqur Rahman Fahad and attacking midfielder Masuk Mia Jony in the three crucial World Cup fixtures.

But none of the replacements disappointed Day, even the 20-year old defender Riyadul Hasan Rafi, who made his international debut less than a month ago. 

A healthy competition now exists in the team as every member has to fight for their position in all areas. 

A brighter future awaits when the players get more mature and experienced but for now, as Day said, “If anything, the lesson we are still learning is we need to take the chances when we get them.”

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