WHY BANGLADESH IS IN BED WITH MARADONA

Quazi Zulquarnain on the birth of an idol. 

It is the wee hours of the morning of June 23rd 1986 and a young boy sits crouched around a tiny television watching intently the actions that transpire on the grainy black and white screen in front of him. Sometimes he gestures wildly, yet inaudibly, clearly irritated or let down by the actions of the men in the picture. The room in which he sits is dark and the only light is the one that emanates from the TV screen. It lights up his face and the furrowed lines of nervous tension that accompany all life-long sports fanatics are already visible.

His floppy hair falls over his eyes at times, but he ruffles it away distractedly, almost uncaringly. It is eerily quiet; there is hardly any noise as the analog volume bar in the rickety Singer TV set is cranked almost close to mute. John Helm, (or is it Martin Tyler?) is often drowned out by the audible snores of his father who sleeps on a mahogany bed not five foot away. If he wakes up, it could be curtains and this means that the boy has to sit close to the screen; so close that sometimes the faster cuts in the sequence leave him squinting and rubbing his eyes.

But this is a price he is willing to pay to watch the actions that unfold on a sweltering Azteca pitch half a world away. This is Diego Maradona versus the English after all and the young boy sitting in Bangladesh would not have missed it for the world. Presently his older brother tiptoes into the room and whispers in his ear that he has to go to school tomorrow and that it is already far too late. The second half must be forsaken. The younger sibling pleads. Just a little bit more he says and the older one already knows that it is a lost cause. He sits down alongside his younger brother, a resigned look on his bearded face, convinced that there is no fighting or stopping this labour of love.

Fifteen minutes later, both sit there awestruck; clinging on to each other in the desperate hope of finding some tangible yet inaudible connection to explain the events that they have just witnessed. Their father still snores on the bed next to them, the room is still dark and the stale stench of cigarette smoke still hangs heavy in the air. It is as if nothing has changed, but they both know that is not the case. Everything has changed. Gil-Scott Heron had lied. The revolution had just been televised.

Later there were fireworks, and then there were celebrations, plenty of them. Young men took to the streets, liberated it seemed by the actions of another young man a few thousand miles away. There was dancing, young men making a feeble attempt to replicate the sway of the hips that had left Gary Stevens tackling air and Terry Fenwick on the floor. There was also innovative flag waving, blue and white striped plastic bags substituting for the lack of an Argentina flag. There was no alcohol and yet there was exuberance; exuberance that saw a futile attempt to carve out a particularly painful tango in the name of their new heroes, or to put it frankly, hero.

Bangladesh was a young nation, barely sixteen on that lovely June night. They did not have many heroes, least of all sporting ones, but even as the sun rose to signal the start of another day they had found one: a stocky, curly-haire  little magician with a divine left foot and a cheating right hand which had just done for the English. Maradona’s position in the pantheon of Bangladeshi sporting heroes was complete. It is a pedestal he holds to this day.

To explain the implications of that second Maradona goal at the Azteca on the psyche of a generation of young men in a poverty-stricken country thousands of miles away, would be akin to writing a course paper in globalization, psychology and sociology. But yet we try and if we were to query wiser men than me, many of them would invoke history to explain the events.

Maradona’s elevation to cult hero-status, they argue, comes not from his abilities as a footballer but from the circumstances that saw him almost single-handedly vanquish the colonial masters. The English had ruled Bengal for the best part of two centuries and resentment about their rule was still strong back in the 1980’s. His was a generation of youths who had grown up hearing tales of suppression from their fathers and grandfathers and to see the English beaten in the grandest stage of them all, set loose a wave of Schadenfreude that carried Maradona on a crest of wave from the banks of the Ganges to a hallowed seat in Olympus.

There are others who argue that it was politics that brought about this sense of identification. Bangladesh and Bengal in general had traditionally always been a hotbed of revolutionary and leftist politics. It was a trait that set them apart from way back in the British rule and this is a school of thought that argues that Maradona's well-documented affinity for Che Guevara, Fidel Castro and the Venezuelan Hugo Chávez have made him almost as much of a leftist icon as a revered footballer.

And then there are those who argue that Maradona came about at just the right time. Before the 1980’s, television was almost unheard of for most people in Bangladesh. In a country of rampant poverty, most forms of communication were almost non-existent. But by 1986, little black and white television sets had found their way into the heart of the nation. There was also the odd colour TV, a relative novelty and just as the World Cup kicked-off, TV had just about become the new national pastime. The time difference meant it was a late night group activity, during which our very first international fan clubs were born. Maradona’s achievements just added more fuel to fire this new sense of liberation and hence, many argue, he came to symbolize this freedom.

So, which is it really? Why do people in Bangladesh adore Maradona so? Why do they revere him even as he grows old disgracefully? Why do they support him even when he is down? The questions are endless and to understand this, we perhaps also have to hear from people like me; people who believe that aiming to rationalize and idealize football fanaticism is a futile exercise at the best of times, but then still go ahead and do it. 

And if you ask people like me, I would probably say that both football and love for the game are elemental situations. It is a love born out of absolute, pure, unadulterated, emotion and in most cases it is irrational to the extreme and impossible to explain. And that, I feel, is as good a reason as any as to why a generation of Bangladeshis are in bed with Maradona. 

Zulquar is a football writer based in Dhaka, and can be found on Twitter @nondeplume. To read more from Zulquar, head over to the Bundesliga Fanatic blog.

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