Zahid Ahsan Russell
Zahid Ahsan Russel is a veteran of the national sports arena. Before becoming Minister of State for Youth and Sports in 2019, he held the position of Chairman of the Standing Parliamentary Committee of the same ministry for ten years, over two terms. As a keeper of the country and a veteran in this field, he has his own ideas about the current scenario of the sport in this country, as well as the standard, development and dreams in this aspect in general. The Minister of State spoke about all this, as well as the Department of Education’s huge unused funds for school-level sports, in an exclusive interview with New Age’s Wahid Ullah Bakul.
New Age: The ministry spends Tk 20-22 crore every year to organize the Bangabandhu and Bangamata school football tournaments with the aim of chasing 80 footballers – 40 boys and 40 girls. Where are these footballers playing now? Are they in the pipeline for the national team?
Zahid Ahsan Russell: You see, the ministry cannot deal with just one game, or we are not a federation to deal with a specific game in addition to sports. The ministry also has other responsibilities as we have many youth development projects to continue and start new youth development projects. We can find talented players through these competitions and send them abroad for further training, but we cannot nurture them over time. We engaged the [Bangladesh] Football Association in the process of selecting talented players… providing training at BKSP after selection and sending some players abroad for higher training. The department’s objective is clear; we organize the tournament to select the players and organize their training because we hope to have at least one international level player among these 80 players in the future. After selection and training, it is up to the football association to create space for these players to develop further. We say this repeatedly to the federation. I think there are ego problems… If they do well, people will say that such and such a player went through the tournaments which were organized by the ministry, not by the football federation. And it can hurt the ego of the head of the federation, the federation can feel his failure. Otherwise, I see no reason not to take care of the players who have been selected through these tournaments by the federations. But, this kind of thinking, in the end, causes the country to lose huge humanitarian and monetary investments. I can assure you that more than 30 players are currently playing for the club teams in different competitions at division level. As you requested, we will soon provide statistics on the current engagement of these players.
NA: As we all know, school boards across the country raise funds for sports. Has the Ministry of Sports ever asked the academies how they use these funds? And, if the school boards have their own funds, why will the Ministry of Sports spend money to organize school football or other sports competitions?
Russell: Actually, that’s my question too. School authorities collect money from students to raise money for sport. You better ask the Ministry of Education. As I know, the primary schools have taken the initiative and spent the money from their funds to organize sports competitions at their level. But in the meantime, the high schools have raised funds of several thousand crore taka. It has remained as idle money till this date. As it is a fund under a different ministry [Ministry of Education], we have no possibility to use it. I think the country would benefit if they used the sports fund. As they do not, we manage school sports competitions… Legally, the Ministry of Sports cannot ask them about this fund. If we sit in a meeting with the Ministry of Education, we can ask them to use this fund for sport, or we can ask them to ensure that we spend a certain amount of money, at least from the dividend of this fund.
NA: The Ministry of Sports has given stores or offices in diatribe to its various sports venues. This amount, which the ministry collects on the rent, is it sufficient to contribute to the development of sport?
Russell: Previously, rental income was paid into the National Sports Council fund. The government has established a new rule that all ministries will have to show their revenues to the Ministry of Finance. And the Ministry of Finance will adjust the amount according to the budget allocated to each ministry. Let me explain, suppose we earned Tk 200 crore in one year and my ministry got Tk 2000 crore in budget allocation. In fact, the Ministry of Finance will give us Tk 1,800 crore while returning our income of Tk 200 crore. So, during my tenure, I never had the chance to use the income separately.
NA: Don’t you think that all these businesses on the site spoil the sporting environment?
Russell: This [rented shops] totally destroys the sporting environment. This hinders the normal movements of athletes in the site area. The environment of a stadium cannot be like this where vehicles are driving around randomly, people are busy with their parking lot, people are jostling in front of businesses and commercial activities are more visible than sports activities. At this time, we have nothing to do to resolve the issue. If we take the initiative to move these stores now, the merchants will go to court, and you know… But we have decided not to leave space for the stores when we build a new stadium. We have a plan if we have to completely demolish the existing stadium to build a new one. We will not provide space for stores inside the stadium. We will build two separate towers—each tower would be a 24-story building—for merchants. I will formulate the plan during my tenure so that whoever sits in the chair for me can execute that plan.
NA: Apart from cricket and football, most of the other athletes in the games are supported by the service teams: Ansar, BGB, Police, Army, Navy and Air Force. And most of these athletes have chosen their sport to have a secure job. Has the ministry taken any initiative to motivate these players to take their game seriously?
Russell: You see, service organizations recruit them primarily because of their ability to play their respective games. Their main task is to participate in sporting events. This is a huge contribution to the sport development initiative from the side of service organizations. If an athlete gets a secure job, they can feel free to focus on their games. I am grateful to the service organizations for their contribution… To motivate the service team athletes, we have honored some of them with the Sheikh Kamal National Sports Council Awards 2022.
NA: If I’m not mistaken, there are 36 coaches under the management of NSC for different sports disciplines. I’m not clear, what are their specific functions?
Russell: Currently, NSC has less than 36 coaches…because some coaches have already retired. Their specific mission is to assist the federations. They were recruited to remain attached as coaches to the federations for long-term training. We believe this helps the federations to continue their games.
NA: Is there an initiative taken by the Ministry of Sports to make club activities more dynamic?
Russell: Most of our clubs are primarily social institutions. These clubs are registered either with the Ministry of Social Welfare or the Ministry of Trade… But we know these clubs by their participation in sporting events. We cannot interfere with their activities as they work for the sport. You see, we couldn’t play any part in the casino scandal in 2018. But these clubs have tainted the sports fraternity because these clubs are known to people as sports organizations. At that time, we asked the Ministries of Social Welfare, Interior and Trade to give us the power to control the activities of these clubs.
NA: We saw the vulnerability of the health service from the start of the Covid-19 outbreak in the country, and the sports fraternity was not out of it. Do you have a project to bring together all the sports federations and associations under one umbrella in order to have a health service?
Russell: For this purpose, we have formed a new committee of the Bangladesh Sports Medicine Association. We should all think seriously about this question. They’re eager to serve, but they can’t manage enough time because, you know, doctors always have busy schedules. We will think about it and sit down with the doctors so that we can all be sure that we are getting health services from a one-stop shop.
NA: Your father, Ahsanullah Master, was a prominent and respected political figure in the country. How much have his activities influenced you to date and how much of his reputation can you maintain?
Russell: Thanks for asking. My father was assassinated in 2004, and after that I was elected the youngest MP in the by-election. I feel that my father always blesses me and guides me from an unknown part of the world not to do anything unjust. I promise not to do anything that could harm my father’s reputation. I always try to be transparent in my activities. In my 18 years as an MP, I never intentionally did anything to tarnish the image of my father, Ahsanullah Master. As human beings, we make mistakes… But if I do something wrong, people will condemn me later. They will tell you look at what the son of the Master of Ahsanullah has done.
NA: Your ministry deals with two vital sectors, youth and sports, and you have to go to your constituency. How do you balance it? Do you think it would be better if there were separate ministries for the two sectors, youth and sports?
Russell: It’s really hard to handle all the ministry work besides visiting my constituency, but I always do my best. You see, it’s hard to maintain the momentum of the sports arena. Besides, I have many projects for the development of young people at the upazila level. Youth development is a big issue. I think that in the near future the government will have to form two separate ministries for youth and sports.
N / A: Thank you for your time.