The Global Game

Sri Lanka’s colourful rapport with the world game

Children play football on a beach in Negombo, Sri Lanka
© imago images
  • Sri Lanka boasts a long footballing tradition
  • The Golden Lion were notably winners of the 1995 SAFF Championship
  • South Asians are participating in Asia's second qualifying round for Qatar 2022

When it comes to the most popular sport in Sri Lanka, it is usually cricket that springs to mind considering their national team's status as a global powerhouse. Despite this fact, however, football boasts a massive fanbase and a long historical association in the north Indian Ocean nation, more so than many other Asian teams.

British servicemen were first seen playing football barefoot on the sands around Colombo in the 1890s before locals soon followed suit. The new sport spread quickly to the southern and central regions, and eventually right across the island nation, and by the early 1900s football had become a popular, competitive sport among youngsters.

The game entered a new era after the nation earned independence in 1948. Four years later, the country's football governing body, the Football Federation of Sri Lanka (FFSL) became affiliated to FIFA and the same year saw them organise the Colombo Cup - a four-nation tournament which also featured India, Pakistan and Myanmar.

It was in the inaugural edition that Ceylon as they were then known - the nation became known as Sri Lanka in 1972 - made their international debut in the tournament opener against India. To the disappointment of their home supporters, the Golden Lion suffered a 3-0 loss at the hands of the strongly-favoured neighbours before finishing the tournament with the wooden spoon.

Although they fared no better in the next edition with three straight defeats, the breakthrough came in 1954 when they came close to clinching the title. Cheered on by the home crowd, the hosts shocked holders India with a 1-1 draw in the opener. And despite narrowly losing 2-1 to Pakistan, they ended as runners-up after overcoming Myanmar by an identical scoreline in what was their first international victory.

Galle district Football League Football House
© imago images

Golden generation

With support from FIFA and AFC, the FFSL embarked on promoting the game to a higher level with development schemes at both club and international level. Those efforts began to bear fruit in the mid-1990s when they tasted their maiden regional success by winning the 1995 SAFF Championship.

Captain Mohamed Amanulla was the hero scoring three times, including a brace in the opening 2-2 draw against India, en route to firing his side to the title. Inspired by the triumph, they went on to excel in AFC qualification for France 1998 where Sri Lanka earned their first-ever FIFA World Cup™ qualifying victory with a memorable 3-0 drubbing of the Philippines in 1996.

At continental level, Sri Lanka impressed at the 2006 AFC Challenge Cup finishing in second place with Kasun Jayasuriya - the country's all-time top international scorer - netting twice.

Rebuilding process

The country's football circle demonstrated their courage and spirit after the terrorist bomb attack in April 2019, defying the odds to prepare their team for Asia's first round of Qatar 2022 qualifying. The team duly lost 1-0 in Macau but were awarded a 3-0 victory in the return following their opponents’ withdrawal.

Even more impressive was that Sri Lanka successfully arranged their first home match just five months after the terrorist attack when they entertained Turkmenistan in the World Cup qualifying second round last September. Over a thousand local fans were at the Colombo Racecourse stadium to demonstrate their support and the home side were far from disgraced in a 2-0 defeat against a side who had recently featured at the AFC Asian Cup.

The brand new Vantage FFSL President's Cup was organised in July and August this year as the country maintained their rebuilding campaign despite the challenges of COVID-19. The inaugural tournament achieved huge success with Colombo FC beating Blue Eagles to lift the trophy. "This will bring back the momentum of competitive football [in Sri Lanka]," announced FFSL President Anura de Silva. "It also provides the opportunity to identify the potential of new talents."

Colombo celebrate winning the inagural Vantage FFSL President's Cup
© imago images

This article is part of the 'Global Game' series, which focuses on football in places away from the spotlight. Next week we'll travel to Armenia.

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