President of Bangladesh Football Federation (BFF) Kazi Salahuddin, member of Swadhin Bangla Football Team, shared his feelings, experiences and memories of the liberation war in an interview named ‘Bangladesh’s Football Heroes’ with BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) on March 14 in 2019.
BBC: Today we are going back to 1971. A story of Sport & Politics. I have been finding out how Bangladesh’s Football Team played an important propaganda role, a country fought a bloody war for independence from Pakistan.
Kazi Salahuddin: When we raise the flag in the ground of Krishnagar, at that time Bangladesh was not recognized by the world. So, we were the first person, who raised the flag of Bangladesh in a foreign land. So, it was an imminent pleasure. I felt proud.
BBC: In 1971 the Bangladeshi football team played a series of games in India. A striker Kazi Salahuddin recalls the matches were big moral boost for then unrecognized country and they helped raise support for the independence cause.
Kazi Salahuddin: The nation who fights with culture with sports who has education as a nation, right? So that the image we could give it to India and the rest of the world. Sports is a very big factor all over the world and football is the number one game in the world as you know.
BBC: Kazi Salahuddin then was only 17 in 1971. He was already one of the top players of Mohammedan Sporting, then the leading side in Dhaka. But in March of that year his sporting career and the lives of millions of others was too changed forever. What was then known is East Pakistan was pounced into vicious war of independence.
The war killed 30 Lakh of Bangladeshi and created many more refuges.
Kazi Salahuddin was from affluent family have been planning to travel abroad to study like many proud young Bengalis. When fight started, he wanted to join Guerilla forces.
Kazi Salahuddin: I thought I need to play a part. By the time I almost knocking in the national football team, I was a player known to the country.
BBC: When Salahuddin told to his parents, they didn’t take it well.
Kazi Salahuddin: My mother flew out and she started shouting, “Don’t talk nonsense. What are you talking? You know how old you are? And then my mother screaming at my father ‘why don't you stop him’? My father looked at me and said nothing. What my father did, he went and opened his wardrobe took out a bundle of money, gave it to me and said son, “this is all I have in the house. You take care yourself. I left.
BBC: But the Bangladeshi provisional government had other plan for Kazi Salahuddin. They were forming a football team to play in India and act an ambassador for independence. When Salahuddin arrived in the training camp he was immediately spotted by a photojournalist who helps smuggle the young Striker out to Kolkata to join the rest of the side.
Kazi Salahuddin: He helped me get a flight on an Indian Air Force’s cargo aircraft. Only things he told me that this is long flight but I will have to go standing up of the flight. I said no problem.
BBC: Once the Shadhin Bangla Football Dol or the free Bangla Football team was formed, they not only train together every day; but also live together.
Kazi Salahuddin: 25 of ours is to stay in one room; with 1 Shower, 1 toilet. The amount of money given for food, I can have two meals in a day; not breakfast, lunch dinner. So what I used to do, I trained harder. I have my shower, then 12 I could have one meal and in the evening at 6:30 I could have another meal. So, in a way the shortage of money helped me become a better footballer; because I used to work harder.
BBC: In July 1971 the Bangladesh team played their first match at Krishna Nagar Stadium in West Bengal, India. The small stadium was packed.
Kazi Salahuddin: There were a lot of trees outside. So all the trees have house full people, the rooftop everywhere. I was having long hair like you know those days The Beatles and The George Best era. That was not a fashion in India then. So I was marked out. Some of them were joking, is that a boy or a girl? So one of my team mates said that hey they are joking about you. Then I said, ok fine. I would rather play.
Journalist: The atmosphere sounds electric. What a way to make your International debut?
Kazi Salahuddin: I don't think I can forget the day as long as I live. The flag was hosted on a foreign land. The score was I still remember 2-2, draw. I got a goal myself and from there on we never look back and after that we played about 16 matches all over India. Everywhere we played be a 20000, 30000 & 40000 people.
Journalist: Where was Salahuddin Success, made back to his parent’s in Dhaka?
Kazi Salahuddin: I received a message from my parents. They heard the game on radio. They were very pleased that we are doing well. That also tell me my parents are alive because those days you don't know, somebody leave house in the morning, you come back with a dead body. So it was quite an emotional time.
Journalist: The tool was the big boost to the Bangladeshi calls in India, the country's flag was raised at the first game even though the nation not yet recognized by the Delhi and good display in the pitch help persuade Indians the future Independent Bangladesh would be viable.
The second match for the team in August in Calcutta. It would be a much tougher contest.
Kazi Salahuddin: At that time Mohonbagan was one of the top team in Asia. After the match Mohonbagan club offered me to turn professional, which I declined. The 3rd match was in Bombay where all the big famous Indian stars and everybody was there and it was also a great atmosphere. We contribute to our war fund and then we were in big party after the game. Where I didn’t have nice clothes to go to the party. So, I went in my tracksuit so that they don't realize how poor I am?
Journalist: And what did you do with the money that you raised?
Kazi Salahuddin: The money we used to get was given it to the freedom fighting fund. There was an exile government in Kolkata. Our Manager used to deposit the fund there. So this is what we did throughout the war.
BBC: Although the Free Bangla team would be proving popular, Kazi Salahuddin says, Bangladeshi player were not always treated well in India.
Kazi Salahuddin: We were known as refuges and used to keep quiet and my senior players told don’t upset anybody. You have a purpose; you have a cause. I was young and arrogant but then again, I took advice. I was in foreign land without a passport or without anything you know. Then I started concentrating on my work; wanted to be the best footballer in this part of the world.
BBC: Late 1971 India came into the war on the Bangladeshi side. On December 16, Pakistan surrendered and Bangladesh achieved independence.
Kazi Salahuddin: That day we had a rest day. We had a little bit of money. So we went to movie. All of the sudden middle of the movie, the lights of the hall went up. Everybody screaming and shouting. I was thinking what the heck!!! Was the war breaking out inside Calcutta or what? Whole city was blackout those days, Whole city was blackout. They have scared of air force attacks from Pakistan. Then I heard it was independent, Bangladesh Independent. Pakistan surrendered. Then I went down on the street with my friend another team mate of mine. They were cheering more than any of us. Some of them are knew us from the area. They shake hands, took at our shoulders. So whole night we went one restaurant to another for eating. Whatever money we have spent the whole money that night.
BBC: Shadhin Bangla football team had played total of16 matches in India, winning 12 of them. It was time for Salahuddin to go home.
Kazi Salahuddin: When I went home and knock my door and then I could hear my mother said, ‘who is it? Who is it?’ Then I shouted it’s me. She came to rushing out, open the door, hugged me, don’t let me go. She couldn’t believe that I am back.
BBC: Shadhin Bangla Football Team, later recognized by Bangladesh government and their contribution to the liberation cause. Kazi Salahuddin went on to be become arguably most talented footballer Bangladesh has ever produced and 2008 he was elected president of Bangladesh Football Federation.
Journalist: What does he think the impact of those matches in 1971 was?
Kazi Salahuddin: What we wanted to achieve, we achieved. We wanted to give an image of Bangladeshi Refuges; we are a nation to be recognized with; we have personalities; we have people who are not uneducated. So that’s one thing I think we did achieve.
BBC: Kazi Salahuddin lives in Dhaka from where he speaking to me.
For more details here is the audio link of BFF Honorable President Kazi Salahuddin’s Interview with BBC