The shock of losing to the Maldives 10-0 at the South Asia Football Federation tournament held recently in Nepal has been described as the “darkest day in the history of Sri Lanka football” by a former captain and national coach, Subhani Hassimdeen. In this newspaper last Sunday, Hassimdeen went on to describe that this defeat [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka football’s darkest hour can be prelude to a bright dawn


The shock of losing to the Maldives 10-0 at the South Asia Football Federation tournament held recently in Nepal has been described as the “darkest day in the history of Sri Lanka football” by a former captain and national coach, Subhani Hassimdeen.

In this newspaper last Sunday, Hassimdeen went on to describe that this defeat did not come as a surprise to him with playing standards falling both technically and organizationally since the late 1970s, and that the writing on the wall had been plain to see for a long time.

For most casual observers, however, the 10-0 loss would have come as a shocker. In most people’s eyes the only world-beater to come out of the Maldives is their dry fish – with apologies to the island’s footballers – a winner all the way when concocted into seeni sambol and eaten with roast paang.

But the game of football has also proved more than a mouthful for our sorry national team which was made a laughing stock by our small neighbours, who had the nerve and style to give their Sri Lankan counterparts a bad bout of indigestion.

Yet, defeat wasn’t exactly a surprise when you look at the FIFA world rankings – Sri Lanka is placed 170th while the Maldives is 153. In terms of Asia, Sri Lanka is 35th and Maldives is 27th. So as far as recent results are concerned, the form-book holds good.

Our fall from grace is hard. In 1995 Sri Lanka was crowned champions of his regional tournament for the minnows of world football. Today we are at the bottom of this heap. We are the bottom-feeders of the football world, like the plankton of the oceans.Unlike cricket, where we have reached the pinnacle, soccer in this country has never risen to any heights despite having a long history. Two years after Arjuna Ranatunga’s men won the cricket World Cup, in 1996, the country was ranked at its highest.

The Asian cup in soccer is held every four years like the World Cup, the Asian Cup is the biggest and most prestigious football tournament in our continent. Sri Lanka has tried to qualify for the finals since 1972 and has failed every time.

At present, the qualifying stages for the 2015 Asian Cup to be held for the first time in Australia – the men from Down Under joined Asia a few years ago (previously they were part of Oceania) as it was felt their path to qualifying for World Cups was easier, and the Asian Football Confederation in all their naivety accepted them – is ongoing and Sri Lanka is not in the picture again.

A total of 20 teams drawn into five groups of four are in contention for 11 berths in the finals – the top two from each pool plus the best third-placed team qualifying – where they will join hosts Australia and four other teams including Japan, South Korea and North Korea.

Hong Kong is in the fray. They are presently in a sound position having won and drawn their opening two games to be placed second in their group behind leaders United Arab Emirates.

Fine line: Japan midfielder Toshihiro Aoyama (right) tackles South Korea's Lee Seung-gi during Japan's 2-1 win at the East Asian Cup in Seoul on Sunday. AFP

Hong Kong too hasn’t done much in recent years. The last time they qualified was in 1968 and steps have been taken to revive the beautiful game in the city-state.

The government has taken it upon themselves to bring about the renaissance and brought in consultants who have made 33 recommendations on how football in the city should be developed. The programme is aptly named Project Phoenix.

To rise from the ashes will cost money and the Hong Kong government is pumping in more than HK$20 million annually – rupees 340 million – into football with the money initially going to create a professional administrative structure.

For the first time, the Hong Kong Football Association has appointed a chief executive officer and along with him brought in a whole rank and file of staff to streamline the administration.

If the organization is good, everything follows. Realising that the heart of the problems was a poor club structure, Project Phoenix has identified creating a professional league with each club having its own ground and training facilities, a rarity in Hong Kong.

The professional league is set to start next year with this being a transitional year as the 10 First Division clubs put their own houses in order. The government is helping here too, funding some of the district-based clubs, and subsidizing others. A national training centre is also on the cards. This new facility which is estimated to cost more than five billion rupees will be the home for football. It will have more than eight pitches, an academy and a hostel.

But at the end of the day it is the national team which will fast-track progress. Hong Kong has realized that if the national team can reach the Asian Cup, or qualify for other major tournaments, it will create the buzz that will generate growth and interest in the game.
So a lot depends on how the national team performs. Putting grassroots programmes into place is all well and good, but to attract the fans, and more importantly the corporate dollars and support, you need the number one team in the country to perform at the highest level possible.

It is here that Sri Lanka football fails miserably. The 10-0 loss to Maldives is a massive nail in the coffin. But instead of dwelling on past glories and tearing the hairs of your chest out by being critical of the system, we must look at ways of implementing our own Project Phoenix to revive the local game.

If this 10-0 hammering can be taken as a wake-up call, then we can look forward to the future with hope. We have plumbed the depths and now it is time to rise. We have to learn from what went wrong and put in place a comprehensive scheme to right these mistakes.
It will take a lot of will and hard work, plus support from the public and private sector if the game is to get back on its feet. But as they say the darkest hour is before the dawn – and if the Maldives was our ‘darkest day” then the future should surely be bright.

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