This football experience has convinced me that grassroots football brings communities together much more than it divides them.
Doubters will always walk among us. “This will create factions, and you should know better than to support this,” one supporter whispered to me as soon as I arrived at Mabley Green for the family-friendly Greater Sylhet Upazila Cup 2015. I had never ever seen him before that day. I gave him a nervous smile. It’s all I could muster at such short notice. To be honest, you always expect one Victor Meldrew moment – and I wasn’t disappointed. It didn’t bother me – nor the hundreds who turned up to celebrate a day of great football, food, reunions and culture all mixed in one.
I had taken my youngest along for the day. It was his eleventh birthday and a great way to spend the day. At the opposite end of the spectrum, I watched happily as Arif from Newark brought his elderly father along for the day. It was really nice watching the senior uncle savouring the atmosphere and games from his vantage point behind the goals.
All the teams were resplendent in their smart kits. The collective mood was jovial and the spirits brimmed high. Straight from the off there was a lot of good natured banter between opponents. That was expected, especially with each team publicising their kits, tactics and announcements in advance on social media. It was all part and parcel of a fun day.
Congratulations to Balagonj for their historic win, but the real winners were the competitors and supporters who turned up in force. Each and every single one was a true ambassador – and therein lies a lesson. Football brings out the inner roar, but it unites and brings people together like no other medium which we can access. On the field it was all blood and thunder as crunching tackles and high tempo passing and pressing were the order of the day. But mixed within this cauldron was respect and class. Bad language was put away and there was no bickering with the ref. The crowd were a knowledgeable bunch. They know their football, and all the punters observed and commented on this with great relish.
From a personal point of view, my team Beanibazar (above) did us all proud. We were unbeaten until the final and didn’t concede a single goal from open play. We were unlucky to lose to an excellent Balagonj team. Hearty congratulations go to Mamun Chowdhury MBE and Balagonj on their great win with a supreme team featuring legendary stalwarts like Shujad, Rashid and Repon. They were a pleasure to watch and came out deserved winners.
It was refreshing to see everyone maintain respect at all times and this is one aspect of the day’s play that really stood out. It felt good to mingle, chat and to shake hands with opponents and offer a positive word on a good game played. It makes a big difference to the spirit.
This was a football carnival – and one that will become better. The veterans are not ready to hang up their boots, and we’ll soon see the day when there are similar tournaments for over 45s and players in their 50s. Now that would be something!
At Mabley Green, during the Sylhet Upazila Cup, what was evident is that football will remain a strong force in communities. Grassroots football has little money, but it does excite great passion. People stick to a team come rain or shine, and most of the clubs are run entirely by committed volunteers and big-hearted sponsors who have close affiliations to the teams. This is something teams higher up the food chain can never replicate. It’s an outlet and a means to forge and cement friendships that may never have existed otherwise. It unites and reunites, and the benefits on health and the mind are all out there in the public domain for all to see. The atmosphere and skill levels on display will inspire a new generation of winners. It will create future leaders.
I must spare a word of thanks to Sonali Otith for taking the initiative and organising a great day out. It ran very smoothly, like clockwork, and I’m sure there will be plenty more where that came from.