The Football boss it was reported in the ST last weekend is ready to kick around. At least this is one area in which he excels having served as National Team captain before taking on the mantle of President, having dribbled past his mentor, Past President Rodrigo at whose goalmouth he now attempts to leave all the ills of the FFSL. But let us for a moment leave the gory details of frauds and skullduggery behind and focus on the subject at hand, Football Competitions.
It must be said at the outset that this is one area where FFSL can claim some kudos. In spite of several challenges, the team at Football House have kept national competitions rolling, even though each year’s competitions spills into another year and at times over-run one another. In the last several years stalwarts like PP Randeniya, VP Pathirana and FFSL staffers like veteran MT Fernando, and in recent times, former CEO Anthonypillai and current Secretary General Jaswar have all been at the helm of national competitions and carried that burden admirably. Running a national competition is no task for the faint hearted and these gentlemen have performed against severe odds to keep the flame of the sport burning even while Sri Lanka kept slipping in the international rankings.
What then are the struggles of running a meaningful competition calendar? One that ensures a high standard snowballing into quality players and a competitive national team that can hold its own among other nations, even if they are South Asian minnows? At the top of this pyramid checklist are playgrounds and well equipped stadia. Football lost some of its finest grounds in and around Colombo and other main cities, as Cricket gained prominence and acquired traditional football venues that drew crowds in days gone by. Next, are the Clubs that are at best, city teams built around well wishers and strong football supporters such as our football hero PD Sirsena of Saunders fame and others like Manilal Fernnado – Blue Star, Ranjith Rodrigo – Negombo Youth, Robert Peiris – Renown, Hurley Silveira – Ratnam and Rohitha Fernando – New Young! These clubs regrettably have no sustainable organisation structures as you would see in Cricket and notably in Rugby with popular city landmarks like the CR&FC, CH&FC, Havelock SC and so on. So the never ending dependence on football patrons go on though clearly it is an aging exercise with a younger set destined to hopefully take over. But no paradigm shift is evident and the notion of a professional circuit virtually non-existent. Thus, into the breach come ad-hoc competitions, more carnival affairs that favor an easy-to-run format like the mushrooming 7-A-Sides gravely tinkering with the 90 minute technically proficient international game played in specified conditions as approved by FIFA. Little wonder, its allied international competitions culminate in the greatest sporting event, the World Cup.
Another appendage of the FFSL competition set-up is the Armed Forces who field teams at the apex level. The Sri Lanka Army in particular is home to many of our top talent and whether one likes it or not, they have kept these players fed and trained, some of whom have qualifies for national duty. A few other clubs, a good example of which is Colombo FC backed by a wealthy entrepreneur are able to support players financially giving us a glimpse of what a professional league could look like.
But there it ends. Football competitions because of the above factors are hampered in more ways than one. This vicious cycle impacts on the whole football financial system because these shortcomings prevent the conduct of gate matches and even when it does, the poor ticket value hardly covers expenses. The FFSL conducts four traditional tournaments over the years. The most important are the Champions League sponsored by Dialog at present, the FA Cup which lost its title sponsor and the FFSL Leagues Competition – Senior and Junior Tournaments. All of these tournaments require restructuring and technical formats that must clinically target better football standards. However, the FFSL simply does not have the human or capital resources to transform these perquisites and must rely solely on the goodwill of sponsors. At this weak organisational and financial level, the players do not benefit at any level of the sport. National Players get a stipend when they are drawn into a pool when national competitions take place. The rest earn a pittance with most teams providing allowances match by match. So why do we play football must be the cry of youth who for some reason are drawn to the sport.
This article will not attempt to cover women and youth sports. Korner Kick will deal with that ponderous subject at a future date. But suffice to say that without youth football, football in Sri Lanka will never rise from the ashes. A few training camps and so-called academies have sprung up addressing the need for sustenance, but it will take much more than that for a football resurgence to see the light of day. For starters, it will do well for FFSL to focus on the two senior most competitions. First, the Champions League with say top 14 teams contesting in on a upper and lower division, based on the home and away promotion and relegation system. That hones in the top 500 or so footballers who over a period of about six months or so will play 25 matches under the watchful eyes of technical administrators, coaches and managers. The other of course is the glamour football event, the FA Cup which simulates the English FA championship. If it is carefully organized at a regional level in the preliminary rounds and brought quickly into a final round Knock-Out basis, the opportunity for new talent to emerge would be addressed. It is a long haul from there to a Professional League and so on, but anything more ambitious than that at present, is like an attempt to shoot goals in the dark.
Kornerkick will next focus on Football – Technical Dept in the Sunday Times of 22 October.