At the recent AFC U16 qualifiers, the young Sri Lanka side not only lost their four matches but did so humiliatingly. A 7-0 thrashing at the hands of Jordan was followed by a 6-0 loss to Bahrain. Uzbekistan beat them 6-0 to and a 10-0 hammering from the Saudi Arabians summed it up. Sri Lanka [...]


Football boss begins to kick around


At the recent AFC U16 qualifiers, the young Sri Lanka side not only lost their four matches but did so humiliatingly.

A 7-0 thrashing at the hands of Jordan was followed by a 6-0 loss to Bahrain. Uzbekistan beat them 6-0 to and a 10-0 hammering from the Saudi Arabians summed it up.

Sri Lanka thus conceded 29 goals in four matches, which means the oppositions scored every 13 minutes of play.

Anura De Silva

The results were no surprise. They were anticipated as successive administrators have done too little to develop the game. There is no professional league, no proper school structure and no academies where professional coaches produce quality players. Defeats are inevitable.

“How can you expect players to perform well when we don’t have a proper school or domestic structure?” questioned Anura de Silva, President of the Football Federation of Sri Lanka (FFSL). “We all want to see the standard of the game improve but it’s a long and expensive exercise.”

Various programmes have been conducted over the years from grassroots to national level. Millions were spent on grounds construction on leased lands. Nothing seems to have helped. Sri Lanka are ranked 44th out of 46 countries in Asia. The picture is much worse globally. The national team plays no more than five international matches per year.

“I think a footballer should start at the age of six or seven with grassroots programmes and when they become 12, they can gradually improve their skills,” de Silva said. “So by the age of 18, 19, they have developed into better players. Then, when they leave school, we will have a perfect player representing clubs as well as the national team.”

“If we can develop that pathway, we will have a pool of very solid and skillful players,” he continued. “Now, it doesn’t happen in our system. We also do not have good coaches at school level where they play tournaments but there’s no player development. We are determined to address these issues and lay the foundation so that we will have a system which will gradually produce players in time to come.”

During his first two years at the helm, de Silva said he initiated a project to develop five training centres in the country. But it didn’t materialise. The lack of finances and support from the government was a major stumbling block, he says. But the real issue has been insufficient foresight on the part of administrators who have conveniently turned a blind eye towards the game’s development and focused solely on strengthening their hold on the association.

“When I became the president in 2015, I wanted to start five training centres around the country,” de Silva recounted. “One in Jaffna, one in Badulla, one in Norwood, one in Matara and one in Kelaniya. The idea was to have five full-scale training centres where we only want to train footballers, giving them the required facilities to learn football and opportunities to improve their language and IT skills so they become rounded players.”

“We started the centre in Jaffna as a pilot project,” he said. “But we are also lacking there because we need to provide them with other facilities. Only if we do will we see the players get motivated.

“But we are not on a very good financial footing at the moment,” he admitted. “We had the same problem during the last two years. We depend heavily on FIFA and AFC.” Nevertheless, the laying of artificial turf at Beddegana in a fully-fledged training centre with modern facilities will finish shortly.

Unlike in Europe, football does not attract sponsors in Sri Lanka. There are a few event-specific ones (for the Champions League, FA Cup, etc) but none of them really invest on development. This means the sport is dependent on FIFA and AFC funds.

From last year, FIFA increased its annual grant by twofold. The local body now receives $500,000 annually from FIFA and another $250,000 from AFC. This means, there is some scope for development now, de Silva said.

“FIFA and AFC funds are given for specific reasons and we cannot allocate them as we want,” he explained. “But with the increase, there’s an avenue for development. Unfortunately, soon after the (FFSL) election, we found out that our money had been robbed by the finance manager. He has given an affidavit and a police statement admitting he has played out the money. So we have asked KPMG to conduct a comprehensive audit to find out where we stand financially. But the situation is not good.”

The Federation has now turned to the Sports Ministry for funds to support their junior programme.

“I made a proposal to the Minister of Sports to support our junior programmes,” de Silva said. “He has been very understanding and, if they can fund the grassroots programme, I think we will be in a decent position in few years.”

Countries like Maldives and Bhutan had structures in place with year-round grassroots programmes and academies that have become a pivotal part of development. Others have professional leagues. Their clubs have professional structures. In Sri Lanka, by stark contrast, the clubs are owned by individuals who mostly pump out money from their own pockets. And there is no infrastructure to run development programmes. “We need to change this, and to do so, we need finances,” de Silva said.

The former Sri Lanka captain also said he wants intelligent players to enter the sport.

“If you have played the game, you will understand how much your intelligence matters in football,” he said. “The XI players on the field are not just kicking the ball. This is one area in which we are lacking and, if we play intelligently, we will do better. The coach can give the best advice but if the players are not using their brains, there’s no point.”

De Silva said he was trying his best to approach leading schools in the country in this endeavour. “They are all playing football but what happens to these players when they leave school?” he asked. “If they can continue, I think we are moving forward. If these people go for an international event, they will understand the dignity they carry.”

De Silva also admitted there was a need to make the game more professional in order to succeed.

“If we don’t, we will never ever progress smoothly,” he insisted. “Only if we make the sport professional will the players become professional. Football is no career path today and we need to change that, however difficult it may be. If they become professional, then we develop a good fan base. When we have a good fan base, we will see sponsors coming in.”

In 2002, Sri Lanka started a semi-professional league hoping to transform the game. But 15 years on, the game has deteriorated further.

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