It was in the era when football was in full bloom in our country, the Ceylon Army led by Lt Christopher Ranasinghe (brother of that soccer legend Peter Ranasinghe) for the first time won the prestigious F.A. Cup in 1956 conducted by the Ceylon Football Association. Some of the renowned footballers who donned the Army [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

The Air Force commander who broke the soccer hoodoo!


It was in the era when football was in full bloom in our country, the Ceylon Army led by Lt Christopher Ranasinghe (brother of that soccer legend Peter Ranasinghe) for the first time won the prestigious F.A. Cup in 1956 conducted by the Ceylon Football Association.
Some of the renowned footballers who donned the Army Jersy during that period were: Goal keepers Freddie White, Oska Wijetunghe, Full backs: Christopher Ranasinghe and Joseph, Halves: Basheer Ahamad, T. Ramasamy and Karunaratne, Forwards, Jaymon, Jinadasa, Karunapala and to name a few. Followed by C.S. Fernando, Ananda Weerasekera, Bucker brothers, S.P. De Silva, Amidon, Sadikeen, Dharmadasa and Rasiah.

It was during this period the services top brass organized their own Inter-Services Football Tournament annually in which the Army, Air Force and Navy battled out with tuff and quality football. From the inception the strong Army team dominated the game and won the championship continuously for ten years. Understandably due to their heavy recruitment and strength compared with the other two forces.

However the soccer loving former Air Force Commander Rohan Amarasekera – who was awarded the “Distinguished Flying Cross” medal for his bravery in landing the Royal Air Force aircraft safely with the dead pilot who was shot when they were flying over Berlin – Germany during the World War II – had his own plan to break the dominance of the Ceylon Army soccer team.In 1965, he enlisted four school leavers namely Vithanage and Tahir from Kandy, A.R.A. Basheer and me from Colombo with the aim of strengthening the Royal Ceylon Air Force football team.

Getting enlisted to the RCyAF during that period was not easy. One should at least have the G.C.E. (O/L) qualification, pass three interviews, two medical tests, the height and build was another pre-requisite. Further the family background is strictly investigated before the final selection.

When I applied to the Air Force, I was still in school, awaiting for my G.C.E (O/L) results. I didn’t have even the required height of 5’6” but my playing ability and popularity earned at school and club level football, gave me some confidence that I may stand a chance for enlistment. Fortunately when I represented Black square F.C against the Air Force in a quarter-final encounter of the F.A. Cup played at the Sugathadasa Stadium, the Air Force Commander and Group Captain N.R. Rahim – the officer in-charge of Soccer were present witnessing the match. I had the privilege of scoring the winning goal for Black Square beating the Air Force 2-1. This actually helped me to join the Air Force with other outstanding sportsmen in the calibre of Boxers P.G. Neil, Herathge, Gordon Periera, Swimmers : Gavin Amarasinghe, Zain to name a few.

While undergoing initial battle training in the Diyatalawa Training Centre I along with my batch-mates Basheer, Vithanage and Thair got an opportunity to represent the Diyatalawa station soccer team in the knockout and league tournament conducted by the Bandarawela football league. The station team was led and guided by Fly Officer Tony Direckez (a top class footballer at that time). For the first time Air Force Diyatalawa became the unbeaten champions in both leagues and knockout competitions. In the final we beat the famous Bandarawela Sunrise F.C. by Seven goals to two. I had the privilege of scoring six goals including a hat-trick. As a matter of appreciation Tony Direckez who Captained the team, ordered me to lead the side to the award ceremony cheered by a large gathering. However it was very unfortunate and sad my school mate and pal Basheer who showed his prowess early in the tournament was forced to hang his soccer boots due to a severe injury sustained at the semi-final encounter played against Old Joes Bandarawela.

When we were transferred to the Katunayake Air Base for trade training I along with Vithanage and Thair joined the Katunayake Station Football team to play in the Negombo league with matured and experienced players like Manualpillai, Daggie Fernando, Thirunayake, Hamilton, David, Sivapragasam, Daniel, Balasubramaniam, Galagedera and Sivanu.

It was in the year 1966 the RCyAF Katunayake Base team came through with a fine seven-one win over the Negombo Young Bees to emerge Negombo League Champions. This final match was played in the presence of a large crowd at the Negombo Esplanade. During the same period, adding another feather to the cap the Air Force side beat the famous Jupiter’s outfit to win the Carrom Shield knockout competition for the first time. For six years this trophy had been taken by the Jupiter’s
To reach another important milestone, that is to win the Inter-Services Championship, the three raw recruits namely Vithanage, Thair and me who have already gained enough experience were absorbed to the Royal Ceylon Air Force soccer squad to undergo training with seniors: former Air Force Commander Terrance Gunawardena, Mahinda Aluvihare, Preena, Sadikeen, Wilson and the rest who played for the Katunayake station team.

In addition to providing separate accommodation, special nourishment and other facilities to the players, the Commander invited the famous National Football Coach Albert Fernando to coach and guide the team. Albert Fernando did a fantastic job to groom the side.
The Inter-Services competition was on a two leg basis (home and away) and this gave the service personnel, their families and the general public the opportunity not only to see the elite of National players and also to witness the up-coming young players in action, but also to closely support and encourage one’s own team in its home ground. In fact, large crowds witnessed the glorious clashes in the Army Ground at Galle Face, in the Navy Dockyard at Trincomalee and in the Air Force Base in Katunayake.

The Strong Army team with National players in the calibre of C.S. Fernando (capt), Ananda Weerasekera, S.P. De Silva and Amidon won the first leg match played in Colombo beating the Air Force by 3 – 0. However in the second encounter played in the Katunayake Base, the Air Force team led by the only National player Mahinda Aluvihare, endearing themselves to thousands of fans by their un-sophisticated brand of simple and subtle football beat Army by 3-2. This is the first time the RCyAF team beat the star – studded Army team. The players who represented the Air Force in this encounter – Goal Keeper – Terrance Gunawardena , Backs : Preena and Sadikeen , Halves : Thirunayake, Hamilton and Vithanage , Forwards: Hassimdeen, Mahinda Aluvihare, Daggie Fernando , Thair , David and Balasubramaniam.

The Air Force won both matches against the Navy – the first leg by 4-1 at Trincomalee and the second leg match 3-1 at Katunayake.
The Navy side sprang a surprise in the tournament when they held the Army team to a 4- all draw in a match played in Trincomalee. The Army however beat Navy 2-0 in Colombo.

To the Navy side brilliant players in the calibre of Tudor Perera, M.N.W. Perera, Chelliah, Halideen and Ramanayake showed their prowess against the strong Army side though they were beaten.

Finally the Air Force obtained nine points emerged champions in the Inter Service soccer Championship, Army was placed second with seven points and the Navy with one point were placed third.At the conclusion of the tournament a day was fixed for the awards ceremony at the Katunayake Base. To grace the occasion a match was organized between the champions – Air Force versus the Rest.

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