As professional football is about to hit rock bottom, there is nothing much to cheer about. But there is one phenomenon that can revolutionise football in Bangladesh but remains away from the spotlight. It was in the early 2000s when 'Underground football' was introduced and it has inspired an entire generation of football enthusiasts to take up football.
Underground football came into being when a handful of teams got together in order to compete with each other and form a community. Thus, this platform was created and since then it has been the only place where amateur booters can showcase their skills.
We have often heard the names of teams like 7 Nation Army, Amigos, DOHS United, Red Court, Illuminati, and Josephite Soccer Knights, but are not well aware of how they came into being. It's time people got to know more about this platform which, in the long run, can even enrich the professional football set-up in Bangladesh.
7 Nation Army was one of the first teams to initiate this campaign as well as launch a whole new girls' wing. Their captain Saveem Shama has been an inspirational character as far as the progress of underground football is concerned. Being a footballer since her school days, Saveem played a pivotal role in getting contemporary female footballers together to launch the girls' wing.
The Business Standard caught up with Saveem Shama who is the captain of 7 Nation Army girls' team and also working in the field of digital content and marketing. She spoke in-depth about the present situation of underground football and what it can look like in future.
TBS: How difficult has life been over the last four months because of Covid-19?
Saveem: The last four months have been different in terms of what we are used to doing. We've been extra cautious about our health and cleanliness. Staying home has been the main focus. And of course, not being able to play outside is a part of that. Apart from that, we are getting used to the new normal.
TBS: How and when did underground football come into being in Bangladesh?
Saveem: Underground football basically is a concept which changed the football scenario completely in Bangladesh. It started its journey between early and mid 2000s. Footballers from schools, colleges and universities began to get together and compete against each other in tournaments, apart from the institutional ones. This was not only to keep up the competition but also to enjoy each others' company as a community. It also helped the players to explore themselves and their talent. The participation of youngsters increased day by day. Teams like 7 Nation Army, Amigos, DOHS United, Josephite Soccer Knights came to the limelight from the very beginning. Underground football has brought the whole pool of football enthusiasts together to change the way football has been perceived in the country. As for the girls, it was in 2007 when Arman (Mohammad) submitted the thought of forming a girls' wing. Seeing so many girls participating in the school tournaments was actually an encouraging sign and it made us believe that even girls can have their separate platform as well.
TBS: How did you get into underground football?
Saveem: I played for my school team, especially doing the job as captain back then. Arman, one of my school friends, shared the idea of bringing all the contemporary female footballers from different school teams to form a girls' wing for the 7 Nation Army football team. This is one of the first girls' football teams for underground. We started to play friendly matches. As time progressed, more and more people started to come into the scene, playing for their respective teams. Thus, the platform for underground football was created and more and more teams came into being, including the 7 Nation Army.
TBS: How is it different from professional football?
Saveem: Underground football is different from professional football in the sense that it doesn't have a governing body, making it more open for all kinds of football enthusiasts and players. You don't need to qualify to play here. Rather, you can showcase your own skills as well as discover the talent of others around you. It's a different ball game altogether in terms of emotions. If professional football has to bring out talent for the greater platform, it's all here.
TBS: What are the hurdles underground footballers have to encounter?
Saveem: Underground footballers have to face different types of problems concerning space and grounds where we can play. We do everything on our own here - maintaining the team, everything else concerning it, practices and specifically getting a solid squad ready for an upcoming tournament. At times we miss out on our players in some tournaments due to their other commitments. This whole process of arranging a perfect team for a tournament is very crucial. There are some risk factors as well because there are so many organizers now hosting tournaments that it becomes difficult at times to judge the quality. Also, since the platform is not well-known to people outside the football community, it doesn't enjoy the spotlight, recognition and attention it deserves. For someone outside the community it's difficult to understand, but we know the intensity and seriousness of it. It's time underground football came up to the surface in front of people.
TBS: How do you evaluate the progress of underground football over the last 14-15 years?
Saveem: The progress has definitely been an upward curve. Especially the number of tournaments, the number of grounds available and the pool of players coming up to participate from different corners of society have been increasing. More and more tournaments have been held. Families have seen underground football grow in front of them and they tend to support their children, especially girls, to participate in tournaments for their institutions and beyond. The number of teams are now three-four times more than what it was before. Now the schools are making their own private teams and participating in tournaments even though they are not consistent. It's great to see so many new teams and players coming up. Sometimes I just sit back and watch the progress of the underground football scenario.
TBS: Do you think that the current players and new organisers are as passionate as the people who kickstarted the campaign?
Saveem: Underground football came into being because of the deep love and passion for the game within the pioneers. So the emotion, passion and dedication the early players and pioneers had were at a different level from the current players who found a ground set today. But the players who are part of the set-up definitely possess the same idea and interest. As for organizers, one thing that is very different from the early ones is their business perspective of it. They tend to look at it as a way to make money. As for the players, their focus has shifted to glorification of the game and the competitiveness they put into it. All these are definitely destroying the true essence and objective of underground football. So the right mentality concerning the platform is something that should definitely be sustained, keeping in mind the true value and objective of it.
TBS: Should BFF pay more attention to underground football events?
Saveem: BFF should definitely come forward to look into this matter and patronize the set-up. The ideal scenario would be if BFF builds a wing to bring this platform under its helm. However, underground footballers should never lose their enthusiasm even if the federation comes forward to shelter us. I have said this in my previous interviews as well, that if BFF wants to boost up professional football, the ingredients are all here.
TBS: Where do you see underground football in the next ten years or so?
Saveem: I see underground football touching greater heights with proper media attention as well as the rewards and opportunities the players deserve. The role of the federation is important in this regard. Each of the players and organizers who started it off and carried it forward, as well as the new players joining, want to present underground football to the world. Overall, I see good things happening with underground football in the next ten years.