ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, July 22, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 08

But….this is just about football

By Iain Cochrane

A junior soccer training camp now in progress at the Sports Ministry Grounds. ( Pic by Saman Kariyawasam)

Just in case you’ve been living under a rock for the last few months, the cricket World cup came to a farcical conclusion in the West Indies in the early hours of Sunday 29th April. Granted, the anti-aircraft fire over Colombo may have diverted the attention and taken the shine off what was a monumental Sri Lankan achievement, but monumental it was by any standard.

Sri Lanka was beaten comprehensively in the final by Australia, widely regarded as the finest team in the World at the time. Despite being ranked fifth in the world when the competition started, no-one gave Sri Lanka a prayer to advance to the heady heights of the final that undoubtedly resulted from clever strategy and a determination second to none.

Unlike cricket, Sri Lanka’s football ranking in the World is less than impressive which ultimately resulted in their failure to qualify for Football World Cup held in June last year.

Question: Hands up if you know where the Sri Lankan national football team is ranked in the World?

Currently the team are ranked 159th below ST. Kitts and Nevis, Seychelles, Rwanda, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Maldives and Burundi. (Does anyone know where Burundi is?) For a highly populated island like Sri Lanka, this is bewildering.
Fact: Over one Billion people live in India. Where are India placed in the football World rankings? Answer: 161st.
This is a staggering statistic.

It comes as no surprise however that a few months ago Joseph Sepp Blatter, the head of FIFA (football’s World governing body) sanctioned the AFC’s (Asian football confederation) decision to pay India U.S. $1m every year for the next four years for the purposes of “developing the game”. Mr. Blatter was recently voted in to head FIFA for a third term of four years unopposed.

Like Sepp Blatter, Mr. Vernon Manilal Fernando 57, has recently begun his third term as chairman of the management committee of the football federation of Sri Lanka (FFSL).

“Put simply, everyone loves a winner”, he says, referring to the nation’s cricket obsession. “Look at Australia. They have always been a cricket nation but football is gaining popularity because they’re getting good at it. One-day cricket remains the number one sport in Sri Lanka but people cannot spare ten hours to watch it which is why football attracts more spectators.”

Unlike most of his countrymen, his first love is football. He played as full-back for his school in his home town of Kalutara and for Greenfield which, in his time were a SLF division three side.

The startling fact that Sri Lanka sits above India in the World rankings comes as no surprise to Mr. Fernando. “India has a huge population from which to find players but Sri Lanka is easier to manage because of its size. You can’t compare the two”.

As for any cash injection to Sri Lankan football he neither confirms nor denies. “The AFC awarded India US $1m per annum for the next four years. From that, the drip effect to other Asian countries can be substantial. For example; Sri Lankan cricket lives off Indian cricket. If India plays in Sri Lanka the match is worth around SL R/s 50m. Sponsors see cricket as ten hours of marketing time with adverts after each over, rolling adverts whilst play is in progress and so on. With football, there is less time for on-screen marketing and so more revenue goes to cricket”.He is content with the drip-feed arrangement.

With the FFSL’s existing fund their primary concerns are the acquisition and improvement of facilities and training its personnel. “We have professionals from overseas providing guidance and we are putting more of our own people through coaching and management courses. This includes placements within top European clubs. We have people currently placed with Chelsea and Barcelona”.

Perhaps, therein lies a problem. Spending cash on know-how is all very well but how many footballs are being supplied to schools? How many goal posts are being erected on school playgrounds? How are young minds to be switched onto this growing sport?Perhaps the SL R/s 20m earmarked for a new football stadium in Badulla should be channelled towards providing facilities at a youth level. After all, what is the point of building a garage if you don’t own a car?

It is easy to point the finger of blame toward the national media for being responsible for football inertia. There are more cricket minutiae covering the back pages of Sri Lankan newspapers than massive headlines in other globally important spheres of sport.
As for television, there is a more than fair representation of foreign football on available channels in Sri Lanka. Sadly, these channels are available to only the privileged few who can afford them. The fact is; not enough domestic football is shown on Sri Lankan TV.
Whilst Mr. Fernando seems content with the level of media coverage, there is no escaping the fact that exposure is minimal. Recent international friendlies received little fanfare. However he is confident that more column inches will follow in the wake of the progress of the sport. “The FFSL’s product has to be good and marketable so that the media will be motivated into writing about it”.

For the record, the national team recently played top club sides in South Korea and Thailand whilst at home Sri Lanka hosted Malaysia. Played 8, won 1, drew 2, lost 5.

All of these games were friendlies and Sri Lanka’s standing in Asia is relatively more impressive being ranked 30th from 46 nations. (India is 31st)

As for facilities, he has been instrumental in providing the National Football Training Centre at Beddagana with a view to adding to their acreage elsewhere. “The trouble up until recently was that football was time-sharing with other sports”.The issue of space applies to the majority of league teams forcing a 5 ½ month season.

“A nine month season like in the UK is unfeasible because of the ground-sharing issue. We have to share space with cricket and rugby”.

However unrealistic this might be, Sri Lankan football needs fans. To get fans it needs exposure and personalities to be excited about. To get the necessary exposure and personalities, the national media needs to wake up to the fact that football in this proud nation is on the rise. But it isn’t receiving the encouragement it needs to grow.

Interest is going to be difficult to generate. You can’t love football unconditionally when your heart belongs to cricket. All enthusiastic Sri Lankan footballers appreciate cricket ahead of “The beautiful Game” (as it is known in the rest of the World). But no-one is asking anyone to choose. No-one hopes or wants cricket to become less popular. In Sri Lanka, this is surely impossible. But football is, by far, the biggest sport on the planet among participants and spectators alike.

I have lived in Sri Lanka for over a year and up until recently I did not know the name of a single Sri Lankan national player. I did not know what the team’s colours are. I did not know where or when the national squad last played or even whether they won, lost or drew. The names of their opponents were also shrouded in mystery. These facts should be in the air. They should be injected into the public consciousness to the extent that to not know the latest about Sri Lankan football at all levels when asked, would amount to social suicide.

Mr. Fernando is ambitious and passionate about the national team and has sincere belief that in ten years Sri Lanka will be a top-ten Asian force. “On a par with South Korea and Japan. Maybe not better but on a par”. This would place them among the top three in Asia and make them regular visitors to the World cup finals.

He is candid about the mind-set of the national team too. “We haven’t yet achieved the single-mindedness that you need for serious success. Eight of the first team have fantastic attitudes but there are three players who are loose cannons. I haven’t yet got them thinking as one. But it will come”.

It is confusing to look at a big picture when some of the key elements are missing. Clearly, improved performance on a national level has priority over the desire to see improvement at the grass roots but sadly, without foundations, penthouses simply cannot be built.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.