By The Line Judge
COLOMBO – It is a crying shame that Sri Lanka which produced great footballers in the past has sunk to rock bottom being ranked 206th out of the 207 nations playing this beautiful sport around the world. Footballers in the calibre of Peter Ranasinghe, Muzammil Hassimdeen and Mahinda Aluvihara to name a few, have held their own against the best in Asia during the golden era of Sri Lanka football in the 1960s. Hassimdeen rose to great heights and was hailed as the greatest goalkeeper in Asia. Sri Lanka boasted of great players like Andrew Fernando, M.T.A. Ossen, Tom Deen, C.S. Fernando, K.A. Premadasa, T. Synoon, K.D. Somapala, Karunapala Fernando, Piyadasa Perera, Lionel Peiris, A.M. Ameer, P.D. Sirisena, A. Zainulabdeen, Edward Wickremasuriya, P.H.S. Albert, S.M. Noor and T. Amdon who became household names because of their dazzling artistry. Alas, today Sri Lanka is struggling to beat regional countries like Bhutan and Maldives having last won the SAARC Gold Cup in 1995.
The Gold Cup is the immediate target of head coach Amir Alagic from Bosnia this year. And the launch of the first ever semi-professional Super League with a pre-season tournament featuring 10 top-tier clubs to kick-off next week could change the face of football often considered to be the poor man’s sport in the country.
There have been many promises of a new dawn with the latest mantra being making the sport professional. Development is another key word bandied about by officials when in the seat of power. Former Sri Lanka midfielder Anura de Silva announced a Vision 2030 program when he took over as president of the Football Federation of Sri Lanka (FFSL) four years ago.
The Super League is a great initiative for the development of the Sri Lanka national team, as well as for the top-tier clubs to step into the professional football industry with commercial and economic benefits. FFSL has selected ten top-tier clubs through a strict club licensing criterion on par with international standards. These clubs are now shaping up their operations to transform into vibrant professional footballing entities, similar to European football clubs.
“This becomes a great moment for Sri Lankan football, to see a new standard of competition and development through the Super League. I thank all stakeholders who worked behind this concept and gratitude to FIFA, AFC, and Clubs for making this professional League a reality. In the long run, we need players, coaches, referees, and others who shall become direct entities in football to be professional and support to elevate our standards at an international level,” stated the FFSL president at the launch.
“Pre-season will make clubs and players be better prepared after a long off-season period. We are looking forward to an exciting competition for the first time of its kind,” added FFSL General Secretary Jaswar Umar.
The ten clubs taking part in this first ever professional league are Blue Eagles SC, Blue Star SC, Colombo FC, Defenders FC, New Youngs FC, Ratnam SC, Red Star FC, Renown SC, Sea Hawks FC, and Up Country Lions FC.
Sports Minister Namal Rajapaksa also stated in Parliament on Tuesday (9) that a short, medium and long term program will be implemented for the development of football in the country. Commenting on the current Sri Lanka rankings, he stated that plans have been made to increase the number of those who are engaged in football to 2 million, and to bring Sri Lanka from 206th to the 150th position in the world rankings.
Head coach Alagic who also functions as FFSL’s Technical Director has drawn up a road map and blueprint for the development of football in the country in the future. Grassroots programme, women football, education of coaches, officials and referees, and revamping the archaic system of playing will be some of the key areas of focus during the next four years.
He cautioned fans to be patient and not to expect results overnight as Sri Lanka are lagging behind even their south Asian neighbours. “India is at least ten years ahead of us. Bangladesh is five to six years ahead of us. That’s the reality we face,” he said.
The decline did not happen overnight but the standards have eroded over many years, according to Anura de Silva, a former national captain.
“In fact, we should say it is the other way round. Rather than dropping in standards, the other countries were doing better in their development plans,” he said.
“When I was playing in the national team, we were a better opponent for any other team. That is because the gap between us and other teams was marginal. But now the gap has widened because we have stayed while others have moved up,” he said.
He attributed the gulf in standards to the socio-economic conditions in the country.
“If you go back in history 50 years ago, people were happy, the economy was good. It was not money oriented for any sport. It is for the love of the game. Now it has changed,” he said.
It is a reality which has to be adapted in the modern era. It is a problem not just related to football but all sports in general.