They awaken in August. Riled up by off-season transfers and predictions, they put on their faded but still favourite jerseys with the steely focus of a battling tribesman applying war paint. Opinions, jibes and counter-arguments are formulated, allegiance is loudly declared. And life is once again whole for the staunch Sri Lankan fans of the [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Wayne Rooney ruling the roost in Colombo hubs


They awaken in August. Riled up by off-season transfers and predictions, they put on their faded but still favourite jerseys with the steely focus of a battling tribesman applying war paint. Opinions, jibes and counter-arguments are formulated, allegiance is loudly declared. And life is once again whole for the staunch Sri Lankan fans of the Barclays English Premier League.

This local sporting demographic, which grows in number and momentum each year, is built up almost entirely of a generation in their teens and twenties. For this group, a century by Kumar Sangakkara or Angelo Matthews pales hugely in comparison with a hat-trick from Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney or Liverpool’s Luis Suarez. Or even a celebratory jig by Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho.

For them the words ‘Premier League’ have absolutely no connection with aggressive batting, fearless bowling, round-bellied tycoons and buxom, scantily-clad cheerleaders, who erupt into choreographed euphoria whenever a ball is thumped out of the grounds.Instead it symbolises an entertaining brand of football involving clubs that these deeply loyal fans have fiercely embraced.

Although there exists a following for the other world football leagues such as those in Spain, Italy and Germany, it is nowhere near as widespread or rabid as that attached to the English Premier League.

Namal Jayalath, a manager at the popular sports restaurant and pub Cheers, readily attests to this fact. “On Saturdays and Sundays you get a big crowd for the match. If there is a match with Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal, the whole place is packed. The biggest support is usually for Manchester United,” he says.

“The supporters are young and they get very excited. It’s funny to see because when there is a cricket match here you will never get such interest.”

Twenty-six-year-old Malik Gunatilleke is one such fan. Despite being firmly opposed to watching matches in sports bars (“Definitely not how I want to enjoy a match.”) the young media professional loves anything and everything Manchester United, from the verdant turf in the Theater of Dreams to the impossibly upright afro on Marouane Fellaini’s head. He is also the perfect example of a new breed of Lankan sports fan which has broken free of traditional sporting bonds, being that he grew up in family which played and carefully followed cricket.

The bulk of local support is generally directed towards Manchester United. AFP

Malik reveals that he first began actively watching football during the UEFA European International Championship in 2004. Afterwards he was ensnared by the scintillating play, long history and global superstars of Manchester United. From then on his weekends have never been the same with the fate of his adopted club sending him through a whirlwind of emotions.

This season has been particularly tough, he explains, with United’s league campaign blotted by a string of defeats.

“Honestly I was not expecting us to do brilliantly but I didn’t expect us to fare this badly,” he says, before reasoning that this is a period of transition for the club, with legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson retiring and David Moyes stepping into his shoes.

“But all those people who think David Moyes is not fit for the job and should be sacked can..,” after letting fly with a few choice expletives, Malik summons all the composure of a striker in front of goal to hold back a further torrent, before continuing, “they just don’t know what they are talking about. The man has brains, he is a sound tactician.”

Yasith Fernando is similarly passionate about the other club in red, Liverpool. Like Malik, his induction into the footballing world came about at an international tournament, in this case the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan.

“I felt connected to it because it was being held in Asia and they were showing matches on television, plus the quality of football was really high,” he states.

“A little later I got a cable connection and while switching channels I stopped at a football match involving Liverpool. It featured many of the players who I had seen during the World Cup so I continued watching it. From then on I started getting into the sport and the team.”

His relationship with Liverpool has yielded much chest-beating and furniture-kicking but by far his true Chariots of Fire moment came in 2006, when Liverpool overcame a 3-0 first half deficit against AC Milan to lift the UEFA Champions League in Turkey.Nowadays with a hectic work schedule and other commitments, Yasith finds it increasingly difficult to constantly stay abreast with the happenings of the Premier League. But this has in no way eroded his love for Liverpool.

Both his and Malik’s passion is in no way isolated, with local English Premier League groups ubiquitous on social media.

On Facebook groups, statistics and insults are flung about between rival supporters like accusations of marital infidelity. Going through a large selection of these comments, it’s almost as if many of these fans have invested a lotmore than emotional energy and have actually dug into their pockets to fork out player salaries and stadium maintenance costs.

Rukmal Perera, who leads marketing and media operations for the Football Federation of Sri Lanka, says this growing interest in English Premier League clubs is openly witnessed in schools around the country.

“Since the arrival of cable television a lot of these youngsters are now crazy about the Premiership. There is also a lot more participation in the sport in every school, especially in international schools. Some players even cut their hair in the style of their favourite players,” he divulges.

Perera says local football authorities have capitalised on this trend, liaising with Manchester United to bring some of its former big names to the country through the Airtel Rising Stars competition, in order to elevate local football standards.

With Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea engaged in a three-club tussle at the top of the Premiership table, support and online confrontation (as mad as things get there are no reports of hooliganism, just vicious name-calling) is at an all-time high. Come the Day of Judgment in May, when one team holds the title aloft, Sri Lankan Premier League fans, after many tension-filled months, are likely to explode into equally frenzied celebrations as their British counterparts.

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