Abahani and Mohamedan are the two most prominent football clubs in Bangladesh. They have a long history of rivalry, reaching their peak in the '90s when they were considered the most potent teams in domestic football.
When Bangladesh started its journey as a footballing nation, Abahani and Mohamedan were the giants of that generation, and both sustained success by winning one league title every year between them for many years.
Today, however, their rivalry has faded, and so has the quality of our domestic football.
The two teams first met in the Dhaka League in 1973. Amalesh Sen, an Abahani player, scored the first goal during the game in the Dhaka derby's history. The legendary black and whites were defeated by the Abahani by 2-0, thanks to a second goal from Salahuddin.
Since then, they have played hundreds of matches. In their peak time, they just ruled Dhaka football. Their rivalry was considered one of the most intense and exciting in Bangladeshi football. Their matches had high skill levels and competitiveness, with both teams fielding some of the best players in the country.
Most players donning black-white and sky-blue jerseys on the field were members of Bangladesh's regular XI. For instance, former Mohammedan players Kaiser Hamid, Wali Sabbir, and Jewel Rana. In the past, Abahani had hosted footballers like Monem Munna, Aslam, and FI Kamal. A large number of them have since played in various Kolkata clubs. The top national players, such as Matiur Munna, Alfaz, Joy, Kanchan, and Farhad, also played for these two historic clubs.
The total count of trophies recognised by the BFF and AFC is 36 and 39 for Abahani and Mohamedan, respectively. This shows how great rivalry they had back then. The supporters were super crazy for them too.
Flags of sky blue or white blacks were observed flying on the rooftops of many buildings in Dhaka one or two days before the game, as we currently see during the World Cup. The stadium was also reserved for Abahani-Mohammedan spectators. The way people celebrate El Classico now, the Dhaka derby was honoured by the supporters in the same way back then.
The ticket queue was packed since the morning before the game. Thousands more people remained on the stadium grounds without tickets, in addition to the fans on the field. The entire stadium used to be packed about one and a half hours before the game.
Many latecomers had to stand and watch the game. Riots erupted amongst opposing fans, and matches between these clubs were frequently violent passionate spectacles.
Though it's nostalgic to look back on rivalries today, the present scenario proves that things are not better than they were before. The rivalry has become less intense, and now some young football fans even find it hard to understand why these two teams are so unique.
Now, these clubs hardly play each other. And they still have to continue being good teams. The hype is gone because there has been an external force at work. A governing body that has failed to protect its own identity, let alone promote its sport.
There are several reasons why Bangladeshi football has declined with all its glorious past in recent years. One is a lack of investment. Bangladesh has a relatively small economy, and there needs to be more investment in football infrastructure, training facilities, and youth development programs. This has led to poor quality in the domestic and national league teams.
Cricket has been given priority over football in Bangladesh, with more media attention and investment poured into the sport. Despite having a strong football culture, the lack of promotion and support has limited the game's growth in the country.
Then comes the big criminal 'corruption.' Numerous reports of corruption and match-fixing in the Bangladeshi football league have been reported. This has damaged the league's credibility and led to a lack of interest from fans and sponsors. Inadequate investment in youth development programs and training facilities has also resulted in poor quality in the local league and the national squad.
Another aspect is that politics greatly influences Bangladeshi football, with many teams controlled by politicians and companies. This has resulted in a lack of stability and continuity in the league, impeding the sport's development. Bangladesh Football Federation (BFF) has been chastised for inadequate administration and a lack of openness. As a result, there has been a lack of responsibility and growth in the development of the sport.
We have seen many clubs which do not even have an academy or youth development program. Still, they are participating in national leagues or cup competitions. In Bangladesh, most clubs become champions by buying players from other countries with high salaries, which creates an imbalance in competition and hinders the growth of domestic football.
There is no harm in bringing overseas players. But if the domestic players cannot match with them due to the lack of development programs, that becomes a headache.
Once, Iraq's regular footballers Shamir Sakir and Karim Mohammad, who played in the 1986 world cup, played in Abahani's jersey in 1987. Nasser Hejazi, who played the World Cup for Iran in 1978, played for Mohammedan. Later, he also served as the coach of Mohammedan.
Emeka, another foreign footballer who played for Mohammedan, was also seen wearing a Nigerian jersey in the 1994 World Cup.
The league had that craze and value to bring these top-level players then. Both these international stars and our own players mesmerised the Dhaka league then. Now it's sad to see our football going through this much downhill with all its glorious rivalries.
The decline of Dhaka Derby and Bangladeshi football as a whole highlights the systemic issues plaguing the sport in the country. From the poor infrastructure to the prioritisation of cricket, it is evident that the football industry in Bangladesh has been left behind.
The relevant authorities must take action and address these issues to revive the passion for the sport and ensure its growth in the future. Only then will the Dhaka Derby and Bangladeshi football be able to reclaim their former glory and bring back the excitement it once generated among fans.