Bangladesh football vies with cricket for sponsorship

Bangladesh football team
Image caption Tickets for an international football match at the Bangabandhu National Stadium cost less than $2

Bangladesh football is receiving sponsorship from the country's biggest mobile phone network, but only after government intervention.

"We already sponsor the national cricket team and it was not part of our strategy to become involved with football at a national level," says Kazi Monirul Kabir at Grameenphone.

"But we had a request from someone very high up in the government and we had to respect that.

"We are in advanced discussions with the Bangladesh Football Federation (BFF)," Mr Kabir says.

"But the final figure will not be as high as the one for cricket because that was built up over a while."

The company currently has a deal with cricket worth about nine crores ($124,000; £75,000) over two years.

Political manoeuvre?

One cynical observer said the government's move was a ploy to divert the youth's attention from the economic and social problems facing the country.

But the only comment from the Youth And Sports Minister, Ahad Ali Sarkar, was: "We are aware of our commitment to the young people and sports-minded citizens of Bangladesh."

BFF president Kazi Salahuddin says: "As is the case elsewhere on the subcontinent, top-level football in Bangladesh is played somewhat in the shadow of the country's test cricket team.

"I have a product, which is football, which is one of the finest products in the world.

"All I have to do now is market the product in the right manner.

Potential for growth

Image caption Children playing cricket in a Dhaka suburb use a house brick as the wicket

"We have had this passion for football for a long time.

"What happened is the whole football scene lagged behind. We didn't put much effort into bringing football back into line."

Tickets for an international football match at the Bangabandhu National Stadium cost less than $2.

And the government has banned all advertisements of cigarettes or alcohol, so money for sport cannot come from those sources.

Mr Salahuddin says: "We are very fortunate to have sponsors. We have some local sponsors and some foreign sponsors, but having Grameenphone is a huge boost."

But how does the money being put into the football team compare with what a big side in Europe or the US receives in sponsorship?

"By those standards it is embarrassing," Mr Salahuddin says. "But if you look at the economy of the country it is OK.

"The more the Bangladesh team can win at an international level, the more support they will get."

Mr Kabir also believes in football's potential.

"Football is a game that has not been nurtured properly," he says.

"It doesn't require any special training to play this game. Everybody can just play and the rules are quite simple."

Long-term goal

Grameenphone has long been involved in football at club level, as well as with the women's football tournament.

"We have sporadically supported football before, but it was never like supporting the national team," Mr Kabir says.

"Like cricket, we are also interested to enter into a long-term commitment with football.

Image caption BFF president Kazi Salahuddin was himself a very influential player

"We have supported cricket in building the cricket academy, which is a world class facility. And with football, we have a similar vision.

"When I am saying a similar vision, I also mean the a similar expenditure as well."

Youth appeal

The future of the game certainly looks brighter now Grameenphone is involved.

"Grameenphone is involved with youth and youth activities in various sports," Mr Kabir says.

"It is a big platform for us to engage the nation and especially to engage with the youth.

"Playing cricket needs some level of preparation, but for football all you need is a rubber sphere."

Embracing the nation

Whatever happens to the national football team, cricket is still regarded as the national game, rooted firmly in the psyche of Bangladesh people.

Image caption As the game becomes more popular, it will not be long before corporate logos appear on football shirts

"We play cricket at the global level, because we are part of the World Cup and we have beaten almost all the teams in the world," Mr Kabir says.

"We are a very divided country when it comes to which part of the country we are from - we are divided in our religions, we are divided in our smaller subcultures."

Cricket brings everybody together, no matter which race, class or part of Bangladesh they are from, according to Mr Kabir.

But the government has launched an official investigation into the failure of Bangladesh, one of the co-hosts, to win the 2011 Cricket World Cup.

And with most of the population disappointed with the performance of the national cricket team, maybe football can now step in and capture the imagination of the country.

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