From Diego and Batistuta to Lionel, a small country from Asia breathes La Albiceleste – we look at football in Bangladesh and their love for Argentina.
It’s the nineties and the Premier League shines brightest in the night sky.
Having planted its seed in Malaysia long, long back, popularity on these shores wasn’t new to English football. But now, with the shiny, new edition of their domestic league, it was aiming to monopolise the airwaves across the continent, starting with the Malaysia.
Growing up as a football fan in the country would involve copious amounts of correspondence with the Keegans and the Fergusons. On the roads, the Liverbird or the United crest adorned more chests than you would suspect in a block of land a few thousand miles away from Anfield.
Like with most nations across the globe, football was introduced to Malaysia by the Britishers during their colonial reign. The people took kindly to this seemingly joyous sport, and the English way of playing, full of masculinity and hard grit, struck the most chords.
The top English clubs have followings that dates back decades ago and many young fans have inherited this from the generations gone by. Hence, for the majority of the Malay population, the Three Lions are the adopted sons come every two years.
Ronaldo and Zidane could pull off nutmegs and pirouettes on one leg, but it was really a David Beckham curler that made millions of hearts stop in the country.
As a kid who was regaled by the guile of Ortega and the lazy elegance of Riquelme, all this frenzy around men from a land which values sweat more than flair didn’t sit pretty with me. As much as the English were oblivious to this, the motto of “Futebol Mundial” is what really worked for me. There is life outside the Premier League, and a rather beautiful one.
As the internet launched into mass consciousness in the nineties, the world began to come a lot closer. Men from unknown countries came together and sang the same songs of Ronaldo and Rivaldo, Baggio and Vieri.
In some corner of the internet, I found my home, draped in the blue and white stripes, with the intoxicating fragrance of the tango and la nuestra travelling across optical fibre. No country did the scent permeate more to than one in the South East Asian peninsula, fondly called the “24th province of Argentina” by historians from Buenos Aires. But Bangladesh, now home around 150 million people, were also introduced to the game by their British colonial masters.
If you’re crossing a field anywhere in the Indian subcontinent, the dominating cacophony would be of wood hitting leather, and Bangladesh are no exception. Not much else can compare to cricket in India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan or Bangladesh. Granted test-status in the year 2000, the streets of Dhaka were filled with men, women and children revelling in the prospect of their nation finally being given the chance to rub shoulders with the giants.
And much like the other neighbouring countries, football swiftly took the backseat as a vast majority of the allocated sports budget made their way into the coffers of their cricket board. Their cricket team is finally reaping the rewards of years of toil, but their football team still sulks in one corner of the room, barely ever noticed.
That said, the support for the game hasn’t suffered a bit, although the public often look elsewhere to find solace from the travails of their national team. They shared the same colonial masters as Malaysia and some of the other nations from the Indian subcontinent, but it was the Argentines that Bangladesh really identified with, when it came to football.
Football Paradise caught up with Pintu Paltan, a gentleman who runs a Facebook group called Argentina Football Supporters of Bangladesh. He told us “You won’t believe me if I tell you that 70% of the people in Bangladesh support Argentina, you can just Google to find out more. We have the largest fan base here followed by fans of Brazil, Germany, Italy and Spain. Fact is we are even crazier than the Argentines themselves”.
In an effort to unravel the genesis of Bangladesh’s collective fandom of La Albiceleste, there are three major waves which give us a sneak peak.
El D10S: 1986 World Cup
Even though Bangladesh had woken up to football much earlier, it was during the 1986 World Cup where it all began to come together. As a little man rode tackles in Mexico as if he was surfing on the beaches of Australia, millions of twinkle-eyed Bangladeshis found their God.
Osman Gani from Khulna remarked “Diego is the sole reason why there is a huge following for Argentina in Bangladesh. His magical skills, wonderful goals and eye for the theatrical just stole hearts of millions in Bangladesh, be that in cities, towns, villages. He became a hero here and people started supporting Argentina since then. Before that, only Pele had come close to winning the collective Bangladeshi heart. Maradona surpassed that craze and the frenzy around him reached to such an extent that people celebrated the 1986 World Cup victory like Eid and after the heartbreaking 1990 World Cup defeat, there were tears, hurt, and even some suicide attempts.”
For many Bangladeshis, Maradona is a symbol of anti-colonialism and his performance against England at the Estadio Azteca in Mexico sums up perfectly about their feeling towards their former colonial master.
As Gani further elaborated “In the world outside, hardly anyone knows the truth about British rule here. It’s a history of 200 years of oppression, torment and violence despite certain developments. For instance, almost 10 million people were dying out of hunger in famine in the space of a year during British rule, and that says a lot. Maradona destroying England with those iconic goals was a huge pleasure to us Bangladeshis back then, and it still is.”
This is where the country’s love for their South American brothers really took off.
Batigol & El Burrito: France 1998
As stories about Diego was passed down from one generation to the next, younger football fans were beginning to learn more about the Argentine national team. The 1994 edition ended in shame and tears, and a nation cast its gaze towards France in the summer of 1998. Argentina were coming out of the Diego era, and Bangladesh were ready to embrace new heroes.
Argentina arrived in France under the guidance of 1978 World Cup winning captain Daniel Passarella. Overall, the squad didn’t have any player in the vicinity of Maradona’s talents, but they weren’t short of calibre to guide them all the way.
The combination of Gabriel Batistuta’s goal-scoring abilities coupled with Ariel Ortega’s wizardry was the catalyst that seduced a new generation of supporters. Batigol knocked three past Jamaica and dreams began to take shape.
“When I was 5 years old, I used to play football with my uncle. All through my childhood, I was told stories about Maradona’s ability with the ball. Our whole family are fans of Argentine football. Since then, I too have thought of myself as an Argentine supporter, but I only fully understood football from around the 1998 World Cup after being fascinated by the performance of Gabriel Batistuta.” said Pintu Paltan.
Even for Gani, mentions of France ’98 brought back some nostalgic memories. “I was only 9 years old then. Games were played on midnight and our whole family would stay awake. It was like a daily festival. Bangladesh Television would broadcast special movies prior to the match, and at half time we would have plenty of delicious food. Among the Argentine players, Ortega was my favourite. The little magician was instrumental in turning me into a die-hard Argentina fan”.
Another World Cup dream slipped away, and both Argentina and Bangladesh moved on. Batistuta and Ortega gave way to Hernan Crespo, Juan Roman Riquelme and Javier Saviola. The fanbase was growing, well in time with the digital media boom in Bangladesh, and it was about to reach a whole new level riding on the back of the wonderful invention called the Internet.
Social Media and The Messiah
A lot of fans like me were introduced to the art of blogging during the 2006 World Cup. It was here that we managed to discover fellow fans of Argentina from other parts of the world. This platform gave me an opportunity to engage with them on various topics and explore their cultures.
Another diminutive figure from the South American country was on the rise and he’d be one that would shape football over the next 12 years, and still continues to do so: The Flea himself, Lionel Messi. His performances on the field and the oft-romanticised comparison with Diego would give rise to a whole generation of Bangladeshi fanatics. As tournament after tournament fell by the wayside in search of a repeat of 1986, Messi was the closest thing to Diego they had ever seen. He even looked similar.
“The new generation of Argentina fans were gripped by Messi-mania. Now, there are 10 times more fans of Messi here, than Maradona ever had. The craze for him here is beyond imagination. Even many non-Argentina fans love him.” said Osman.
Messi’s impact through football rivalled that of Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan & the rest of the USA Dream Team, which they took basketball to a whole new level at the Summer Olympics of 1992, held in the city that would become Messi’s adopted home a decade later.
His popularity and craze finally saw tangible fruition, and in 2011 the government has decided to fork out $4 million to arrange a friendly match between Argentina featuring the likes of Messi, Javier Mascherano, Gonzalo Higuain and Angel Di Maria against Nigeria at the Bangabandhu National Stadium in Dhaka. It was time for pandemonium.
The event was a massive success despite the high ticket prices as thousands of Bangladeshis couldn’t resist the temptation to watch their heroes in the flesh right in front of their own eyes. Looking at the number of moist eyes in the stands, you would think Bangladesh had just beaten Argentina on penalties in a World Cup final.
One such teary-eyed person from that night is Mohammed Rubel who had to go through a 7-hour bus journey from Pabna to Dhaka starting at 12 midnight. Upon arriving and after having breakfast, he had to endure an arduously long queue just to get tickets.
“At the time, I was working in a shop, and the price of the ticket was even more than my monthly salary. But I managed to save enough money for this trip because I longed to watch the match. Watching Messi live was everything I had ever hoped for. I had to ask my mom’s permission and she told me to pursue my dream. They were by far the most memorable 90 minutes of my life.” Rubel sums up his experience.
Today, it’s different. People like Pintu Paltan and Osman Gani have taken advantage of platforms like Facebook or Twitter as it allows them to bring fellow countrymen who share the same passion.
For Pintu, AFSBD gave him the opportunity to strengthen the communication with all the Argentina football supporters of Bangladesh and to discuss various football related topics regarding Argentina football team.
“We started this Facebook group about 5 years ago, but it was hacked and then last year we decided create a new one which is now called AFSBD ™ & the members are called AFSBDians. We have about 357,000 plus members already in our group. Every month we will be doing some small or big program. We have even designed our t-shirt, which is not for sale as we are doing this strictly for passion and not to make profit” said Pintu.
On every match-day, it’s a huge event for people like Pintu and his countrymen. They will have big gathering on the street near his house or party centre in Dhaka, broadcasting the match on a big screen via projector. Everyone seems to love this kind of atmosphere.
Gani who runs a Twitter account called @Arg_Soccernews gives us an insight on what to expect from the people here when the World Cup takes place.
“World Cup craze in Bangladesh is beyond description. Just before every tournament, people will start to buy jerseys and flags of their favorite team. It has become a tradition that every family would raise the flag of their favorite team on their house rooftop. You can see the walls of houses being painted in the colours of their team. Some would even go on to raise gigantic flags.” said Gani.
But for most football fans in this country, the flag is merely a symbol; it’s about making a statement on where the allegiance lies. Their identification with Argentine football goes far beyond petty rivalries. Cliched as it is, a Lionel Messi dribble isn’t a chance to throw snark at the yellow-clad fans from across the block, it is therapy, it is medicine. The textile industries look forward to these events, as business goes through the roof due to sudden demands. Politicians tried to intervene about the graffiti and flags, but they had as much success as Gonzalo Higuain in an international final.
The craze isn’t just limited to the metropolitan cities like Dhaka, but has spread across even to the villages and lesser affluent areas. In some places, crowds would gather around one huge screen where the match was on.
Rivalries with fans of other nations – mainly Brazil – exist, but it fades in front of the emotional rollercoaster that their national team puts them through ever so often. People have attempted grave things when their teams have lost. Football has never been just a sport anyway, not least in this country.
In a nod to their favorite adopted brothers, the Bangladesh Premier League side Sheikh Jamal Dhanmondi Club even decided to use an almost replica of the Argentine colour for their away kit. How about that!
The next World Cup in Russia is just looming around the corner. Now that Argentina is going through a renaissance following the appointment of Jorge Sampaoli, many fans are hopeful that this he, along with the attacking firepower of Messi, Icardi and Dybala, can turn around the Argentine fortunes.
“Sampaoli is the best & perfect for us. I think his target is not only for the World Cup in Russia but also Qatar 2022. I believe in the players he will call up for the national team and they are going to do a perfect job at the World Cup next year” an optimist Pintu said.
Surely the World Cup in Russia will be the last chance for Messi and this generation of players to end Argentina’s draught of winning a major trophy and exorcising the demons of losing three consecutive finals from 2014 to 2016. If it all works out, the thermal imagery on the night of the final will show some red-hot maps between Dhaka and Pabna.