|Sunday, 8 September 2002|
New football league to challenge cricket craze in Sri Lanka
KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 7 (AFP) - Football is set to take the spotlight in cricket-crazy Sri Lanka this week when the country plays host to the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League, the AFC said Friday.
Interest is high in Sri Lanka in this week's matches, which kick off the new tournament's East Asia qualifying rounds, the AFC said in a statement.
Fifty-one teams from 29 countries will participate in the tournament, which offers a 500,000-dollar cash prize for the winners, five times higher than in previous Asian club competitions.
There are also cash subsidies ranging from 10,000 dollars to 100,000 dollars for each team.
Colombo's Sugathadesa Stadium, with a capacity of 25,000, is expected to be packed for Sri Lanka's Air Force match against New Radiant of the Maldives in the first qualifying round, due on held September 10.
Air Force secretary Nandana Abeyratna was confident the team would win their opening game, saying the players' military training would provide an edge in fitness and discipline.
"I would say we're the favourites. We have a young side with excellent fitness. They're in great shape physically," he said.
The day after that game, Sri Lankan team Saunders is set to face Indian side Mohun Bagan, one of Asia's oldest clubs, in the first leg of their qualifying encounter.
Mohun Bagan coach Subrata Bhattacharya said the Calcutta giants would need to win in Colombo to ensure an easier task in the return leg match in Calcutta on September 22.
"Our fans are a discerning lot and we are in no mood to disappoint them when playing at home. A good win in Colombo will make our task in Calcutta easier.
"But we expect this to be a tough match. Saunders are no pushover and playing at home always gives a team the added incentive to succeed," he said.
Mohun Bagan would be counting on Indian star forward Baichung Bhutia who has had a spell with English Second Division side Bury, and Brazilian import strike partner, Jose Ramirez Barreto, the statement said.
Both clubs last met 25 years ago when the score line ended in a 2-2 draw.
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