On 25 July 1971, at a small stadium in India packed to its brim, a team from what was then East Pakistan played a side representing the Nadia district of West Bengal. Just before kick-off, the East Pakistan captain unfurled a green flag with a map of modern-day Bangladesh at its centre. To the sound of applause and cheering from the 10,000-strong crowd, the flag was paraded around the perimeter of the pitch, then hoisted alongside the national colours of India.
In this dusty stadium in an inconspicuous corner of the world, the East Pakistan players had made history. This was the first time that the flag of Bangladesh – a country still not officially recognised – had been unfurled on foreign soil. As ambassadors of the war for liberation that was raging in East Pakistan, the Bangladesh XI – the country's first international football team – were rebels first and footballers second.
In 1947, the last British forces and colonial administrators departed the Indian subcontinent. Behind them they left the new republic of India and the Islamic republic of Pakistan, the latter divided into East and West regions and flanking the Indian peninsula on both sides. Though long sought after, independence came at a high price. With the subcontinent split into two separate nations, the years before and after independence bore witness to a mass exodus of refugees travelling from one country to another, depending on their religion. As a result, pogroms, rioting and massacres erupted in the provinces of Bengal and the Punjab.
East Pakistan had a prickly relationship with its counterpart in the West. The enormous peninsula of India dividing the two regions spatially meant that, barring religion, the two regions had very little in common. The people of East Pakistan shared cultural and linguistic similarities with the bordering Indian states of West Bengal and Assam, rather than the Punjabi and Pashtun cultures of West Pakistan.
This cultural divide was further exacerbated by the fact that although East Pakistan had a larger population, it possessed little political influence in the capital city of Islamabad, located some 2,000 miles away in West Pakistan. The West also enjoyed the bulk of the common budget and deemed the Bengalis of the East to be inferior and not "martially inclined".
By the nineteen-seventies, a popular Bengali nationalist movement seeking greater autonomy had sprung up in East Pakistan, much to the dismay of General Yahya Khan, who had become the nation's president a year earlier. In March, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the leader of the Awami League, delivered an address that closed with the words: "Our struggle is for our freedom. Our struggle is for our independence."
On 25 March 1971, Islamabad ordered the commencement of Operation Searchlight, aimed at eliminating all opposition in East Pakistan, be it political, social or military. Over the next few months, this military action would lead to a systematic genocide of three million civilians, while around 10 million refugees fled to neighbouring India.
A provisional government was formed in Bangladesh, which later shifted its seat to Calcutta (now "Kolkata") in India as a government in exile. Covertly financed and trained in guerrilla warfare by the Indian armed forces and intelligence services in camps across the border, their military wing, the Mukti Bahini ("Liberation Army"), declared war on the occupying armed forces of Pakistan.
The provisional government entrusted Shamsul Haq to form a sports association, the Bangladesh Krira Samity ("Bangladesh Sports Committee"). With the help of the committee's first secretary Lutfor Rahman, former footballer and coach Ali Imam, and former East End Club footballer Saidur Rahman Patel, Haq decided to form a football team who would act as ambassadors of the revolution and spread the word of independence.
Both All India Radio and the Shadhin Bangla Betaar Kendro broadcasted a call to Bangladeshi footballers living in the refugee camps scattered across India to attend trials for the team. Coach Nani Bashak finally selected 25 players to meet for a special training camp before the squad began touring India, playing fundraising matches to support the Mukti Juddho ("Liberation War").
A few others linked up with the squad after the camp. Kazi Salahuddin, one of the greatest footballers Bangladesh have ever produced, had initially joined a guerrilla training camp to fight the war. It was there that a photojournalist from Calcutta told him about the football team. Already a star of Dhaka club Mohammedan Sporting, then the leading side in East Pakistan, Salahuddin immediately travelled to Calcutta in an Indian Air Force plane to join the team.
Thus was born the 'Shadhin Bangla Football Dal' (Free Bengal Football Team). Zakaria Pintoo was appointed captain and Pratap Shankar Hazra was made his deputy. Along with figures like Kazi Salahuddin, Nurunnabi, Saidur Rahman Patel, Ali Imam, Govinda Kundu, Amalesh Sen and Sheikh Ashraf Ali, they would go on to forge their place in Bangladesh's sporting and political history.
The idea was to let the world know about the liberation war and the struggle for independence in Bangladesh. In late July, the team made its debut at the Krishnanagar Stadium in West Bengal, India. With the small stadium packed to capacity, people climbed trees and walls or watched from the terraces of neighbouring houses. The hard-fought match, which ended in a 2-2 draw, was attended by representatives of the Bangladeshi government in exile, including Prime Minister Tajuddin Ahmed. It was in this game that the team unfurled the flag representing an independent Bangladesh.
"I still remember that day. It is the most memorable moment of my life being the first person to hoist the Bangladesh flag outside the country. It was also a historic moment for Bangladeshi football," Zakaria Pintoo recalled more than 40 years later in an interview with a leading English-language daily.
On 14 August, Pakistan's independence day, the team beat a Calcutta XI 4-2. Prior to kick-off, in an act meant to humiliate Islamabad, the Bangladeshi footballers trampled on the Pakistani flag, set it ablaze and threw it into the stands.
Famous Mohun Bagan had to play under the banner of Goshtopal Eleven. The match in Bombay against Maharashtra Eleven was also very interesting as former Indian Test Captain and Nawab of Pataudi Mansur Ali Khan led the side and scored one goal.
"I can still remember Indian film icon Dilip Kumar appearing in the game against Maharashtra and donated one lakh rupees to the team."The solid centre back from Naogaon also recalled the day Bangladesh won the war, "We were about to leave for Delhi to play another match when we heard the news that we had been waiting for nine months.
The day was December 16, the air was full of euphoria and we joined the never-ending celebration."
The current President of Bangladesh Football Federation, Kazi Salahuddin also played an important role in this team. The then young man played his first match for Shadhin Bangla football team against Mohun Bagan.
Today, many of these heroes have passed away. The ones who are alive are in different parts of the country and abroad. The country always remember their heroics as they made the best use of whatever they could offer when Bangladesh needed them the most.
The 'Shadhin Bangla Football Dal' – Players: Zakaria Pintoo (captain), Protap Shankar Hazra (vice-captain), Kazi Salahuddin, Nowsheruzzaman, Lt Nurunnabi, Taslim, Ainul Haque, Khokon (Rajshahi), Lutfor (Jessore), Sheikh Ashraf Ali, Amalesh Sen, Hakim (Jessore), Aminul Islam Suruz (Barisal), Bimal (Chittagong), Shuvash Chandra Shaha (Narshingdi), Mujibur Rahman, Kaikobad, Siru, Sattar, Sanjit, Momen Joarder (Chuadanga), Saidur Rahman Patel, Piara (former secretary, Kushtia DSA), Enayetur Rahman Khan, Shahjahan, Aniruddha, Nihar, Govinda Kundu, late Ali Imam, late Mahmud and late Lalu (as of 2003).
Officials: Late Lutfor Rahman (Secretary, Bangladesh Krira Samity), Tanveer Mazhar Islam Tanna (manager) and late Nani Bashak (coach).