Sri Lanka has been ravaged by internal conflict and a natural disaster in recent times. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami killed over 35,000 of its population, while a three-decade civil war was finally ended in 2009.
Naturally, such happenings had a negative impact on Sri Lankan football as the footballing infrastructure was also badly affected. FIFA contributed with financial support of $3.5m USD which went towards the rebuilding of regional technical centres in Colombo and all of the affected areas of Sri Lanka.
However, now the beautiful game in the ‘nation of the smiling people’ has another reason to be optimistic: the election of Ranjith Rodrigo as President of the Football Federation of Sri Lanka (FFSL) last month.
Formerly an aspiring footballer, Rodrigo has worked for the FFSL in various roles since 1996, and his ambition and infectious drive in his new role have already began to have a positive impact on Sri Lankan football.
He quickly appointed emerging Brazilian Claudio Roberto as the new coach of the national team, and set him the initial target of guiding Sri Lanka to SAFF Championship glory in September. The Sri Lankans finished runners-up and winners in the tournament’s first two editions, in 1993 and 1995 respectively, but have since struggled to hang with south Asia’s elite.
Rodrigo is also overseeing a complete overhaul of the domestic game in Sri Lanka, aimed at, among other things, improving the standard of players and officials, increasing match attendances and developing women’s football.
“Sri Lanka is a most beautiful country,” Rodrigo told FIFA.com at the Home of FIFA in Zurich, where he was visiting FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter. “We have a population of 21 million and the majority really like football. Our clubs have a lot of fans.
“Now that our war has finished, all of the eastern and northern area – mostly schoolboys – need to come to play football. I want to change the mentality from war to sports.
“We have to develop Sri Lankan football because it hasn’t improved over the last few years. The Sri Lankan Football Federation and the schools have to get together to improve the football from school level upwards.”
Rodrigo believes this will be possible because of FIFA’s assistance over the past 15 years.
“Fortunately we now have the facilities to improve, because of FIFA’s help,” he said. “In 1998, President Blatter started the FIFA Finance Assistance program and the GOAL Project. The GOAL Project enabled us to build a good football headquarters and a training centre, and after the tsunami we were helped by the GOAL Project’s tsunami funds.
"Under the GOAL Project’s supervision we have started and finished many projects, including the Jaffna technical centre. We invited the FIFA President to come and open this. We have had schoolboys who have started to learn at these training centres.”
“We are a beautiful island,” he said. “We can start beach football. Now we are starting some centres for beach football and futsal.
“With the national team we have a talent hunting programme in the north-eastern area and the southern region. We are improving, starting with the U-17, U-19, U-21 and U-23 teams. We have to work on these feeder teams.
“We also want to improve the national team. At my council we didn’t discuss a short-term plan but a long-term one, and in ten years I’d like to see Sri Lanka participating in the AFC Asian Cup. I hope this can come true.”