When the words ‘full contact sport’ are mentioned to Sri Lankans, nine times out of ten their mind will wander towards the poetic ferocity of rugby, which occupies a slot in the country’s sporting hierarchy that lies only marginally behind cricket. However, the arrival of the Elite Football League of India (EFLI), with its brand of swashbuckling American Football, has set off a gentle rumble through this status quo.
Currently making its debut on the island, the EFLI has pitted a wide mixture of American Football teams from India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka against each other in fixtures worked off at the Sugathadasa Stadium. These teams comprised the Bangalore Warhawks, the Pakistan Wolfpak, the Colombo Lions, the Delhi Defenders, the Kandy Skykings, the Kolkata Vipers, the Mumbai Gladiators and the Pune Marathas.
The competition has whittled its way down to the semifinal stage, with the Defenders meeting the Warhawks and the Lions clashing with the Marathas at the Sugathadasa Stadium at 5pm and 7pm respectively today. For the Colombo Lions, a team consisting of numerous rugger players, a spot in the August 25th final would be especially significant considering their limited pre-tournament preparation and the fact that this is their maiden outing on home soil.
Nevertheless the competition has been memorable for all participants, Sri Lankan, Indian and Pakistani, as Bangalore Warhawks Captain and Running Back, Roshan Lobo points out.“Sri Lanka is really good. We really like the place and the grounds and facilities are extremely good,” he says.
Roshan himself started out as a ruggerite before deciding to make what he describes as a relatively straightforward transition. “If you have played rugby then I think this (American football) is very easy because I think rugby is harder. In rugby whatever skills you have, the whole team has to perform well. Here one player has to learn his position and do his best.”
He adds that American Football, like in Sri Lanka, is still a burgeoning sport back in India, but due to the methodical way it is being systematically developed, steady interest is gradually being generated.
On the local scene, one of the livewires who is giving the sport a fervent push is veteran rugby referee and the Sri Lankan Director of the EFLI, Dilroy Fernando.
“I’ve been running tournaments in various parts of Asia. So I’ve been helping them to introduce the sport in India and Pakistan. But when they offered me (the post of Director) my first reaction was no I don’t want to get involved because rugby was my main thing. But then they said come and have a look. Also the first thing that they told me was it was a semi-pro league and I thought there are so many rugby players without jobs that this would make a lot of sense,” Dilroy asserts.
Realistically though, it make take many more tournaments before American Football attracts the jam-packed stadiums that are oftentimes a familiar feature of local school and club rugby encounters. However, Dilroy is extremely optimistic of the sport’s potential to shine in Sri Lanka.
“It is up to the people who play the sport to make it popular. We are also hoping to have a team from the Southern Province. What we want to do is also have a domestic league, which will pay the players. We have contacted the Ministry of Sports and Education. We were able to get blue-chip companies to come on board. We are also hoping to start training programmes in schools in the near future.”
Additionally, Dilroy states, what the league in Sri Lanka aims to do is strike a balance between rugby and American football, whereby competitors of both sports stand to benefit.
“We have sportsman who have to work from morning till evening. What we offer them is if they want to go full time into sports, they can train with us in the morning and then they can go home and go for rugby later.”