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Islamic Bangladesh celebrates its first women's football title in a frenzy

Bangladesh women's national team players had to train in secret to avoid Islamist attacks
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PHOTO/PIXABAY  -   Flag of Bangladesh

The players of the Bangladesh women's national football team, who had to train in secret to avoid Islamist reprisals, were greeted this week as heroes on their return to the country, including a ride in a convertible bus, after winning the South Asian championship. 

Bangladesh defeated Nepal 3-1 in the final of the South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) women's championship on Monday to win their first-ever title in a tournament led mainly by neighbouring India. 

Since then, the celebrations and the expressions of affection have not stopped among fans of the sport, who see this victory as an important milestone for the empowerment of women in the country. 

"This is a great achievement for us. One of the best sporting achievements of our country, I would say. It was also the culmination of years of hard work by our girls," Bangladesh Football Federation president Kazi Salahuddin told Efe on Thursday after receiving some of the players. 

Such is the furore over the milestone that Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina announced she would give cash prizes to all the team members in recognition of the victory and ordered houses to be built for the needy, Bangladesh's state-run agency BSS reported. 

The Bangladesh Cricket Board also pledged a reward of $150,000 to be distributed among the players, most of whom come from low-income rural families. 

After their arrival in the capital on Wednesday, the players paraded through the streets of Dhaka in an open-top bus to receive the support of hundreds of fans who came to greet them, while local television channels carried live coverage of the four-hour journey. 

For women's rights activist Maleka Banu, this achievement is more than just a title, as Bangladeshi women "have to fight against a lot of odds. This is a victory against all kinds of regression. We hope it will be a big step forward for our girls". 

Bangladesh, ranked 147th in FIFA women's football, went into the SAFF tournament with low expectations, as neighbouring India had topped the competition in the previous five editions. 

The team, led by striker Sabina Khatun, who was also named player of the tournament, scored 23 goals in the entire competition and conceded only one goal. 

A long, complex and secretive road

But the road to victory was far from easy for the Bangladesh women's football players. 

"We had to organise a secret training camp, as many people in this society did not like the idea of girls playing football. There was no sponsor available for us," said former general secretary of the Bangladesh Women's Sports Federation, Qamrunnahar Dana. 

Although Bangladesh is known for its passion for football, it has not been able to achieve significant success. The one that resonates most in the country was the South Asian championship title won by the men's team in 2003. 

The men's team is currently ranked 192nd, one of the lowest in the world, and only ahead of Pakistan and Sri Lanka in the region. 

"Hopefully, this victory will open everyone's eyes," Dana said.