Before the qualifier against Australia and all the on and off-pitch drama that followed, Plaantik had a chat with Lodewijk de Kruif weighing in on what should be done to push the footballing agenda forward in Bangladesh.
05:30 PM, Perth, Australia.
As the sprinklers turn on and the stadium stewards get ready to open the gates for public entrance into the nib Stadium, alone sat Lodewijk de Kruif, the then Bangladesh manager, staring down the aisles of empty seats from the VIP stand. Bangladesh were getting ready to play the biggest football match in their history against the hosts in a few hours for the World Cup qualifiers. de Kruif had received a suspension from the previous qualifiers which prevented him from stepping into the dugout. Luckily we were there to catch up with him with a few hard hitting issues…one last time.
Plaantik: I will start off with the hard one. There were a few rumors of the Federation sacking you, just hours ahead of the game. What do you make of such allegations?
De Kruif: Well, as I have said in the press conference yesterday, the news is absolute rubbish. With stories like these, journalism has hit an all time low. Whoever wants to spread this rumor, and I can’t be saying out names, just wants to distract us from our duties. My concentration has always been to prepare my staff and players. As you can see I cannot be at the dugout, so I need to prepare them for it. It’s horrible journalism and I really cannot respect people who does this. Just leave us alone and let us focus on the game at hand.
Plaantik: Obviously, we’ve made it this far. Are you content with how we’ve been doing?
De Kruif: Well yes, yes. When you have all the circumstances in mind: where we come from, let’s say almost three years’ hard work now in Bangladesh, with ups and downs I have to say…then yes I am content. But for sure, improving the game improving the players – individual and as a team. Let’s say we had a few targets here. When we sat the first or second time on the table with Salahuddin, he said: “Coach renew my team, bring some boys inside, make some new stars, make football important again in Bangladesh.” And of course, always empty stadiums, eh? In Bangabandhu – it changed a little bit – not in the league but when we are playing, you can see that spectators are coming. In Dhaka, it’s getting better. But when we go outside, in say Sylhet or Jessore or Rajshahi or somewhere like that, it’s a packed house! So let’s say, in all the targets we had from the first day we achieved everything. But, we have to continue, we have to make more steps, better steps with the country. 180 million people. Talents are there, for sure. But we have to find them. And we need a good system to find them, and bring them inside, educate them and from there it’s the coming future for Bangladesh football. Still in that area, we are facing problems every single day. It goes too far to talk about it now in details, because you know your country, it’s a long story and all kinds of circumstances are important in that area, unfortunately. Also I have to watch out a little bit of what I say here because all of a sudden I can step on toes of certain people. My intention, intention of Salahuddin, intention of my players is to develop the football in Bangladesh in general and you can say that we are here now, and we are on a good strike.
Plaantik: We’ve also had a few good players coming from abroad, and I think that’s something new that you brought in when you came to Bangladesh. We’ve had few from Wales; who tried out a few weeks ago. Then there’s Jamal Bhuiyan from Europe…so, is that just one thing you want to have on a permanent basis or is that a part of a bigger plan where you start growing players from within?
De Kruif: Of course, in the first place it’s part of the plan. It’s part of the targets we have. And we found a few players here and there. I can say I have a database only from UK players around 15-20, different age categories, but also coming from Japan, from Australia, from the US. Even found a guy in France. I am very busy with it. It’s good that you mentioned because I now realize, and also my staff realizes it too, that people are coming by themselves now. Sending messages through Facebook, approaching BFF saying: “Hey I am a player, I am interested to play for the national team” and so on. But let’s not talk about straight away if they will make it or not. The important thing right now is that they are coming. They are taking initiative of saying : “Look at me, I’m here.” So, let’s see. And we want to continue in that area because of course not everybody has the qualities but when we pick one, two or three, then we’re already happy and that is progress in my books.
Plaantik: Also, keeping on that line of conversation, Hemonto Vincent Biswas – he went on trial to FC Twente and for whatever reason it didn’t work out. What do we learn from that and what are the aspects we really need to focus on for Bangladeshi players to be at least reach the standard of the world game? Because frankly right now, I don’t think any of the current players would be able to go to Europe and make into even second division. How long do you think it will take, and what do you think we need to change?
De Kruif: First of all, Hemonto was in Twente and I believe he was good enough. The only issue is always where you come from outside Europe. There are always rules, and they are not easy rules. And the rules are telling you something about salary gap, those things – coming from Bangladesh, it was a hell of an investment, but I saw the guy myself and I saw his potential. That means, he’s good enough for Europe. The problem is, now he’s going back to Bangladesh. Locally, we know football is not at a very high level. The circumstances in Bangladesh – very tough. Food, housing, etc etc…you know the situation. From there, everyday he will not improve himself. Everyday, his skills and qualities either stays the equal or it deteriorates. Instead, he should be going to a good professional organization, have daily training, and simply live like a professional player. So, in that area, it’s a pity. I want to bring him out if I can and I will fight for it, but in Holland, unfortunately, it’s too big an investment. Hopefully, something else will come in one or two years. But, HE has to do it within one-two years, otherwise, he can forget it. Then he’s too old and all the European clubs will lose interest in him. So, to give you an answer on the second question – how can we bring the players to that level that they can survive in the area: first of all, you have to start from the bottom. And the bottom is, work together with schools, and local tournaments. From there, you get your best players. Then bring those players to an academy. We have two academies now – Dhaka and Sylhet. But, BKSP is there, also, in Rangpur, in the north. There is one in Khulna. There is one in Chittagong, probably. Let’s talk about five-six, big, like French style academies in the country. From there we need good coaches, educated coaches, coaches who know how to bring those boys on a higher level. Development of players is vital. Look at Mamunul, the captain. He was already a good player when I came, but look at him now – a superstar in Bangladesh football and he has worked with me to develop himself into the figure he is today. So these are the places from where you have to start. Otherwise it’s not possible because it’s long term. But the average Bangladeshi guy cannot think in long term. They only think in short term. You have to win from Australia. I say ‘thank you very much but it’s not possible’. I also gave Salahuddin the plan of short term. In short term, let’s say we go from 165 FIFA ranking to around 150. That is, bringing, like they do in Qatar, like they do in Bahrain, like they do in Hong Kong and several countries in the world – when a foreign player is five years in the league, let’s see if we can give him a Bangladeshi passport and bring him to the national team. We have a few Africans in the league and to bring them into the national side was my idea, everybody was very enthusiastic. But all of a sudden from the inside there was a lot of resistance, so it didn’t work out. But, it is still a good plan, besides all the patriotic emotions who are involved in that one. Look, I am not from Bangladesh, I’m not an insider with emotions: so I have the perspective from the outside as well. But why? Because, I want to improve the football. I want to help. So when they decided that it’s not possible – all I can say is: “okay then, the problem is again with you, I’m only trying.” So there, short term. Long term it is start from graduates, good coaches, invest your money, good organization, structure.
Plaantik: You’ve seen the Indian Super League, and they’ve attracted big big names. Do you think that’s the model that Bangladesh should follow – with heaps of investment and glamorizing the game to get the attention first?
De Kruif: I agree totally with you. I think people from UK already came to approach Bangladesh Football Federation for an idea like that. Not totally the same, but a little bit like that. I am very pro. Please, invest in football, come with ideas, see how we can get it on a higher level. This is one of the good ideas, see how we can bring it on a high level. I would also like to see what I saw here – when we come with the bus outside, you saw the families right? The young children, adults, families, arranging things for kids, making everything related to football – not only inside the stadium but outside the stadium – attractive to come, and bring the people here to enjoy the game. You have to learn to entertain otherwise why should anyone come?
Plaantik: Finally, can I say have a goede dag? (Dutch for ‘good day’)
De Kruif (amused): Goede dag! Yes, of course. Very good.
Plaantik: How do you say ‘goodbye’ in Dutch?
De Kruif: Say it with me. ‘tot’. ‘ziens’. tot ziens.
Plaantik: Will Bangladesh be saying tot ziens to you soon? Because I sure hope not…
De Kruif: Well, all I can say is that I am here for the game and then we have a game against Jordan in a few days. I honestly can’t say what the future holds.
Plaantik: Thank you Lodewijk for your time. Good luck.
De Kruif: No problem. Enjoy the game.
As the game ended 5-0 with Bangladesh, I decided to head to the team hotel and say goodbye to the team and wish them luck for the vital game at home against Jordan. As I approached the lobby, I saw a few staff members hanging around – clearly tired from the last few days. At the corner of the lobby, was Lodewijk with a few players. They all sat facing a wall with a mirror on it, and right on top of the mirror was a flat screen repeating the game they just lost. I noticed while the players were supposedly looking at the telly, Lodewijk was fixated at the mirror – staring at the players instead. A good minute later, he barked: “You are not watching the game. You are not looking and you are not learning. You are busy looking outside the door. If you don’t learn to reflect, you will never succeed.” Before he headed up to his room, I spoke to him one last time and till the last second he seemed to have the best interest of the team at heart. Tot ziens indeed, Lodewijk.
Lodewijk de Kruif has recently parted ways with the Bangladesh Football Federation and is no longer the Head Coach of the national football team.
(This interview was conducted by Plaantik Co-Founder Tawsif B. Akkas and edited by Padya Paramita. Photo: Daily Star)
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