Bangladesh, with their best-ever placing in the FIFA/Coca Cola World Ranking being 110 in 1996, have been left languishing in the lower reaches of the global pecking order over the past decade. They slumped to an all-time low of 183 in June 2008, and their fortunes have since fluctuated as they have sought to regain some lost ground.
The erratic performers, however, put in some solid and steady displays in this March's 2014 AFC Challenge Cup qualifying, racking up two emphatic wins over hosts Nepal and Northern Mariana Islands only to be edged out by group winners Palestine. And the reward for their resolute showings is encouraging, with a 12-place move up the latest world ranking lifting the Bengal Tigers to an eight-month high of 157.
"My general impression about the team is quite positive," Bangladesh's new coach Lodewijk de Kruif told FIFA.com, reflecting on his first competition in charge. "The boys played with their hearts. We brought some new ideas and the players proved they are capable of adapting to the changes quickly."
Upon his appointment in January, the 43-year-old Dutchman was quick to announce his coaching plan to transform the team with a Dutch style of play. In his words, the work begins from "focusing on organisation and discipline, as well as improving the players' professionalism in both thinking and methods."
A little over two months on, the efforts have begun to bear fruit. Kruif's new-look charges played gallantly against a fast-developing Palestine, with only a late strike from Haytham Theeb earning the latter a hard-fought 1-0 triumph.
Despite the opening upset, the south Asians rallied to down Nepal 2-0, with 21-year-old Shakhawat Hossain Rony completing a brace. The striking prodigy went on to add his third and teenager Toklis Ahmed was also twice on target as Bangladesh rounded off the campaign with a resounding 4-0 victory over debutants Northern Mariana Islands.
We brought some new ideas and the players proved they are capable of adapting to the changes quickly.
"So far I am satisfied with my attackers," said Kruif. "Both Rony and Toklis showed their predatory talents and they are still very young. There is still a lot of work to do with them but they can have a bright, long future."
Their attacking strengths aside, Kruif was particularly glad to see the team improve defensively, conceding just a single goal. "Since taking over the team, I have put a lot of emphasis on our defence and organisation,” he said. “During the campaign our back-line proved solid, well-organised. And our keeper Alam Sahidul performed quite well."
However, Bangladesh's qualifying hopes were brought to an end with Brunei's withdrawal from Group E. As a result, their victory against bottom Northern Mariana Islands became void according to the tournament regulations, leaving Laos and Turkmenistan with qualification as the best two second-finishers at the expense of Kruif's side as well as India and Tajikistan.
Reform continues unabated
But the unexpected setback will not prevent the Dutchman’s continued process of reform. And with the SAFF (South Asian Football Federation) Championship kicking off in September in Nepal, Kruif believes they have another chance to showcase their progress.
He said: "We will spend this summer watching more players from the local leagues, so there will more options. And we have enough time to prepare the team for the SAFF campaign, to analyse the rivals, to decide out tactics."
With the team beginning to take an orange hue, the Bangladesh Football Federation are pleased to see their Dutch policy going smoothly, as General Secretary Abu Nayeem Shohag told FIFA.com. "Over recent months we have flown our team to several countries for friendlies to impress them with our seriousness in building the national team. This, allied with our signing of good-quality coaches, has seen positive changes with the team."
"For the past six years our domestic leagues have made good progress, with a new generation emerging and breaking into the national team. Under coach Kruif, we are expecting to reach Asia's top footballing nations within a few years."