In Bangladesh, countdown to World Cup brings frenzied fandom laced with tears

Ahammad Foyez
2022.11.18
Dhaka
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In Bangladesh, countdown to World Cup brings frenzied fandom laced with tears Flags and images of players associated with the Brazil and Argentina national teams decorate a dormitory at Dhaka University, Nov. 16, 2022.
BenarNews

The Bangladesh men’s football team did not qualify for the World Cup, which kicks off in Qatar this weekend, but its garment workers and expatriate migrants have poured their sweat, tears and – in some cases – blood into the tournament.

Bangladeshis joined an army of expatriate workers from across Asia who helped construct giant stadiums that the gas-rich Persian Gulf emirate rapidly built from the ground up amid allegations of poor and dangerous working conditions. FIFA, world football’s governing body, had in 2010 awarded Qatar the right to host the 2022 edition of the globe’s biggest sporting event, but under a cloud of alleged corruption.

And back home in Bangladesh, factory workers in the ready-made garment industry, which is notorious for cheap wages as well as poor and unsafe workplace conditions, produced jerseys and T-shirts for FIFA and domestic markets.

In the southeastern port city of Chittagong, a few thousand workers at Sonnet Textile Industries Limited sewed 600,000 official jerseys and T-shirts for FIFA in two months. The company won the contract via a Russian intermediary.

“It was an amazing experience for my football-loving employees and me to make the T-shirts for FIFA,” managing director Md Yasin told BenarNews.

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Children play in an alley decorated with murals of world football superstars in the Swamibagh neighborhood of Dhaka, Nov. 15, 2022. [BenarNews]

Football mania

In the days leading up to the tournament’s starting whistle on Nov. 20, a feverish festive mood in anticipation of football’s World Cup has gripped this country of 160 million people, where cricket is king. 

Millions of Bangladeshi fans have adorned their homes and businesses with the flags of their favorite teams from distant continents that are competing in the World Cup; they’ve painted murals of beloved players on walls and rooftops, and begun to engage in passionate tug-of-words with fans who support their team’s rivals. 

Many Bangladeshi football fans are die-hard supporters of the powerhouse footballing nations from South America and Europe. The flags of these countries festoon the rooftops of buildings in Bangladesh, and the faces of superstars like Neymar and Messi are everywhere.

Some fans here have even held motorbike rallies as a show of loyalty to their favorite teams. In Rangamati, a southeastern district, fans painted two long bridges with the flags of Brazil and Argentina.

In the world of cricket, Bangladesh is usually among the stronger nations vying for that sport’s World Cup, but its national men’s football team ranks nearer to the bottom of FIFA’s international standings – No. 192 out of 222 nations, according to the latest rankings

The national football team has appeared only once in the Asian Cup, the regional tournament to qualify for the World Cup, but departed from the group stage in 1980 after conceding 17 goals in four matches.

The national team’s dismal performances have led to fans here to cheer for the likes of Brazil, Argentina or Germany, who almost always are shoo-ins for the World Cup.  

The rivalry between neighboring nations Brazil and Argentina has carried over to Bangladesh, and can be violent.

In 2018, machete-wielding fans of the Brazilian and Argentinian teams clashed in the streets, leaving a man dead and his son critically injured. 

But others are more willing to share the joy of such sporting rivalries with family and friends.

Arman Hossain, a Dhaka University student, said he bought two jerseys.

“The one that I bought for myself is Argentina’s jersey,” he said. “Unfortunately, my younger brother supports Brazil, so I decided to gift him a Brazilian jersey.”

For local sports stores, the fervor around the World Cup means more business.

Nasimul Haque, manager of Sports World, a shop in Dhaka, said his store had sold over a hundred jerseys in the last three weeks alone, with Argentine and Brazilian jerseys selling like hotcakes.

“Most of our customers are young. They are collecting jerseys of players and fan editions of their favorite teams,” he told BenarNews.

In urban stores, a replica jersey can cost 840-1,260 taka (U.S. $8-12) – too pricey for many in a country where more than 20 percent of the population live below the poverty line. 

To cater to their demands, street and footpath shops offer cheaper flags and jerseys.

For their part, the country’s richer people are taking it a step further: More than 1,000 Bangladeshis have already purchased tickets to live matches in Qatar, according to the Bangladesh Football Federation and Discovery Tours and Logistics, an official ticket sales agent for the World Cup.

Each fan is expected to spend about $3,000 to enjoy the live matches from the gallery in Qatar, said Zahirul Alam Bhuiyan, the CEO of Discovery Tours.

From building stadiums to sewing jerseys

Bangladesh’s growing economy relies heavily on its cheap labor-fueled ready-made garment industry and expatriate workers’ remittances. Unsurprisingly, the country’s non-football ties with the World Cup are somewhat symbolic of the woes of these economic drivers. 

The minimum wage for garment workers in Bangladesh is 8,000 taka ($78) per month.

When Qatar won the bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, the tiny Gulf nation hired thousands of outside workers to build the necessary infrastructure, including from Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and the Philippines.

Miraz Hossain, a construction worker from the central district of Munshiganj, worked as a construction worker in Doha for 10 months.

“As a big fan of football, it was a rare opportunity for me to participate in constructing a stadium where all the celebrity footballers will play for their nations,” he told BenarNews.

“Many workers, including myself, were not provided sufficient food. I witnessed many fatal incidents.”

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A general view shows the Lusail football stadium, under construction for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, during a stadium tour in Doha, Qatar, Dec. 20, 2019. [Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters]

According to an investigation by The Guardian newspaper, about 6,500 migrant workers from South Asian countries, including Bangladesh, have died in Qatar since it won the right to host the World Cup.

While most deaths were formally reported as “natural” without conducting any autopsy, underlying causes included multiple blunt injuries due to a fall from a height, asphyxia due to hanging, undetermined cause of death due to decomposition, according to the newspaper’s investigation.

Bangladeshi officials have not addressed the findings by The Guardian that were revealed in February last year.

“If anything like abuse of workers’ rights happened, it was very unfortunate,” Kazi Salahuddin, president of the Bangladesh Football Federation, told BenarNews. “However, no Bangladeshi expatriate worker has ever shared such an experience with me, despite the fact that I visit Qatar on a regular basis.”

Human rights activists, however, are not letting the issue die as the World Cup draws closer. 

“We hope that the international community never forgets the rights abuses faced by migrant workers in Qatar,” said Syed Saiful Haque, who chairs the WARBE Development Foundation, a migrant-rights advocacy group.

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