You are one of the biggest sporting stars this country has ever seen. Football was infinitely popular when you were a player and it still was after you retired. Did you ever think its popularity would come down?
Salahuddin: I don’t think football is less popular today. It is true that we have fewer people coming to see the matches, but there are reasons behind that. We have fewer individual players now and we must take the traffic into consideration. During my time, we had matches every day and the stadium would be packed. Now it takes me over two hours to travel from Gulshan to Motijheel (which is just a few kilometres). It sometimes takes three hours! It’s hard to be at the field when there are regular matches. But international matches are still well attended, so I don’t agree that football is now less popular. Of course, times have changed, circumstances have changed.
“Football is the eighth largest economy in the world, second largest in Europe. Who are you comparing it with?”
People used to come from far away. They would even walk to the stadium!
Salahuddin: What happened was that, at a certain interval, for about eight to 10 or even 15 years, football ceased to play a vital role in our lives. Games weren’t played on a regular basis. That’s when it fell behind. Watching a game is like a habit. You’ll notice that in Europe, watching the game on Saturday and Sunday is part of a routine. Our habit was ruined, but we’re working on reviving it.
In those days, two clubs were highly popular. The kind of fan base Abahani and Mohammedan had … when I left Abahani it had hundreds of thousands of fans. Now we have Abahani Supporters Forum, which has 10 to 12 members, and I don’t even see them on the field. The fans would show up to watch league matches between Abahani and Mohammedan. It was like a match between Real Madrid and Barcelona. It’s unfortunate that Abahani and Mohmmedan are no longer performing the way they used to. So there are many factors.
You’ve played first division cricket. How popular was cricket back then?
Salahuddin: It was nothing sensational. A league match would draw 15 to 20 or maximum 100 people to the stadium. But I noticed that there would be a lot of people in test matches when Pakistan played (in pre-1971 days). League final matches after our independence would have two to three thousand people.
Cricket did not have any infrastructure back then. The umpires would be paid with funds from the football federation. Cricket would just about survive.
Did you ever think that cricket here would be more popular than football?
Salahuddin: I repeat, I don’t agree with that. Domestic football has twice as much of an audience than cricket. Cricket gets more audience only in international matches. You must understand that the national team must win. People will show up if they win. People come because our national cricket team wins. If you had gone to India in the 60s, 70s or 80s, you would have seen the galleries filled to their brims. India was the Asian champion in the 60s. Their team used to win. I played in front of hundreds of thousands of people at Mohonbagan. Their cricket team started winning when their football team was not winning. Then their cricket matches are packed with people. The national team has to win; the fact that they were winning worked in cricket’s favour.
The comparison you keep making is sad. Cricket is a wonderful game. I’m not against cricket; I am for it. Bangladesh is doing well; I hope Bangladesh will win the World Cup. It’s not impossible. But cricket is a game played by seven, eight or ten countries, half of them amateurs, half professional. Football is played by 209 countries. FIFA membership is higher than that of the United Nations. Football is the eighth largest economy in the world, second largest in Europe. Who are you comparing it with? A club’s turnover is $1 billion dollars. There are 200-300 clubs like that. And here you have seven clubs in seven countries, five of which are non-professional. There may be 100 professional cricketers in the world, but there are 10,000 professional footballers across the world. Cricket is lovely, I like it a lot, but there is no comparison here!
You talk about popularity … Bangladesh played Australia a few days back.People filled up the stadium knowing that Bangladesh would lose. Take 10 games from cricket’s domestic league and compare. The cricket team plays with the world’s top teams. At times it wins, other times it loses. Now bring the football teams from England, Brazil, Australia or Argentina to Dhaka. Will you be able to make room for the audience?
Football is not less popular. Cricket just became popular. There’s a difference between the two.