When Sri Lanka was soccer mad, it stopped a nation | Sunday Observer

When Sri Lanka was soccer mad, it stopped a nation

The mammoth crowd at the Sugathadasa Stadium
The mammoth crowd at the Sugathadasa Stadium

There was a time in our sporting history that soccer and athletics were considered most popular sports in the country. And there was a time when our top level footballers and athletes were a hit. Those inter club soccer matches were played and athletic meets were held in front of packed audiences.

It is of interest to go back to the sports pages of yesteryear and discover the standard and popularity of soccer in our own backyard, especially during the first two decades of the post-colonial era.

When Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon) hosted the famous Southern Pentangular tournament in 1967 the title decider turned out to be the match between the host country and the Mysore State team. The match was played under lights at the Sugathadasa Stadium.

In the run-up to the decider, the Ceylon team under the captaincy of Mahinda Aluvihare recorded victories over Kerala and Madras. The “Ceylon Daily News” in a preview of the Ceylon-Mysore match questioned; “Will today be the biggest day in our soccer history?”

Meanwhile the Football Federation in a media release said “all invitees have been requested to be in their seats at least one hour before the match to avoid disappointment.” It was an unprecedented excitement that prevailed among local soccer enthusiasts.

Ultimately the match turned out to be a memorable affair, in which the Mysore team kept their undefeated record intact with a 1-0 victory, much to the disappointment of thousands of local spectators.

One of the most fascinating landmarks in Sri Lankan soccer is undoubtedly, the Olympic tie played against India in 1963. The first-leg of the Pre-Olympic qualifier was played in Colombo and the return was in Bangalore, a few days later.

The Ceylon team selected for the Colombo match read: Peter Ranasinghe (Captain), MM Hashim Deen, BB Sourjah, MA Ameer, PHS Albert and BHH Sally, Edward Wickramasuriya, A. Zainulabdeen, Mahinda Aluvihare, PD Sirisena and PK Kurukulasuriya. It was reported that SM Noor replaced injured Kurukulasuriya and the coach was V. Nadarajah and Manager VK Arumugam.

Led by Bengal’s Chuni Goswami, the Indian team had the services of soccer greats in the calibre of Peter Thangaraj (lanky goal keeper from Bengal), defender Arun Ghosh (Railways), mid-fielder Yousuf Khan (Andhra Pradesh) and strikers Appalaraju and PK Banerjee (Railways).

A couple of days before the match, a Colombo newspaper carried an interesting preview on its sports page under the title “Sunday is D-day for Ceylon soccer”. It read: “In the long sweep of Ceylon’s soccer history there has never been a moment so historic, so charged with excitement than the impending Olympic preliminary round tie with India to be played at the Stadium on Sunday. Those selected to don the Ceylon colours on Sunday will be a unique band. Their names will adorn the pages of our soccer history as the first to represent Ceylon in her bid to enter the world of international soccer. So far Ceylon’s efforts have been confined to contests between her Asian neighbours where Quadrangular and Pentangular tournaments were the only incentives. But now her horizon had widened and Ceylon is looking ahead. The last time Ceylon met India at soccer was in 1954. It was the 3rd Quadrangular at Calcutta and Ceylon had the distinction of holding India to a 1-all draw”.

Although the local governing bodies of cricket and rugby have always brought out attractive and informative print souvenirs whenever they were engaged in an international match, it was not so with the Football authorities in the days gone by. But for this historic Indo-Ceylon match in 1963, the CFA published “an attractive souvenir”, as it was introduced “to mark Ceylon’s entry into the international soccer world”.

The authorities expected a record crowd for the match, biggest ever spectator gathering for a soccer match in the country and thereby arranged over 20 ticket-selling points at the venue. But just a day before the match, they found that “nearly five thousand tickets were reported to have been stolen” as a newspaper report stated.

It added: “the stolen tickets were on sale in Colombo on Friday and Saturday. The Organisers of the match, the CFA, had cancelled all these tickets and immediately contacted the printers and had fresh tickets printed”.

Never in the annals of local soccer has there been a vast crowd to witness a match as it was for the Indo Ceylon match. A local daily even carried a front page photo under the captain: “Thrills at the stadium” depicting a cross section of the spectators.

On a statistical view the end result could be summed-up as, India 5 – Ceylon 3, but the real tale of this soccer epic lies elsewhere, how our soccerites stunned the opposition, holding them at 2-all for a longer duration of the match. It was soccer at its best.

According to another newspaper report with banner headlines it read: “India win 5-3, Gallant Ceylon XI go down fighting, Peter Ranasinghe excels.”

“India were stretched all the way by a gallant Ceylon XI before emerging victors 5 goals to 3 in their Pre-Olympic soccer tie for supremacy played before a large crowd of over 25000 fans at the Sugathadasa Stadium.”

In December, 1961, the Colombo Football League created history when they organised a floodlit soccer tournament tagged as the “Gold Cup tournament”. The tourney was held at the Colombo Oval, a venue more famous for cricket rather than soccer. And it looked a novel experience for the players and spectators and even for the referees, to get accustomed to the white ball used during the competition.

According to the match schedule, two matches were played daily, at 6.30 and 8 pm with the tickets priced at Rs.1, 2 and 3 and 50 cents for children. They even issued season tickets priced at Rs.15. And to accommodate the massive crowd that poured into the venue the organisers had to arrange a special bus service operated from Borella junction to Wanathamulla on match days. The grand finale of the 1961 Gold Cup soccer tourney was between Colpetty United and the Old Joes SC which ended in a thrilling one-all draw. Commenting on the outcome of the match the Ceylon Daily News commented: “Disputed goal and Gold Cup final is drawn. A disputed penalty awarded a minute before the final blast robbed Old Joes of their Gold Cup victory. Even ten minutes of extra time brought no result. Both teams gave a polished account of themselves”.

I can still recall the agile goalkeeping of Piyadasa Perera (Colpetty United) and Sam Lovell (Old Joes). Anyhow, playing with vim and vigour and making full use of the chances that came their way, Colpetty United made sure that the coveted trophy was theirs when they defeated the Old Joes team 2-0 in the re-play final which was played a few days later.

In May 1970, Southampton FC, a division one football club in England played a couple of Test matches in Colombo against the Ceylon team tagged as Ceylon Football Association XI.

The second Test was played at the Sugathadasa Stadium under lights before a capacity crowd. The match reached a thrilling climax when CFA skipper MAV Fernando booted a full blooded shot to beat the opponent goalkeeper and to make the tally two goals to one in the latter stages of the match.

Famous soccer scribe Penalty Kick remarked: “The greatest soccer performance ever by Ceylon; this is how I would sum up our 1-2 defeat against Southampton FC, twice British FA Cup finalists and one of England’s top first division sides”.

While picking the Ceylon team’s custodian Lionel Peiris as the best player on the field, Penalty Kick added that “the two goals which beat him could have beaten the best goalkeeper anywhere”.

A photograph that appeared under the caption: “They paid for these seats” on the front page of a leading daily in April 1949 depicted an interesting story. It showed the rear view of the mingling spectators, some were standing on push cycles, some on the stands behind the reserved seats, at the match between the All-India soccer team and the City League played at the Government Services ground.

This was to follow another interesting piece, the report on All-India vs City League match (1949).

The correspondent wrote: “So a large crowd turned up to witness the game that the arrangements proved totally inadequate, and chaotic scenes were witnessed before, during and after the game. The crowd started pouring in long before 4 pm and the barriers erected were soon broken down and hundreds of fans burst into the ground without paying.

“The standing enclosures were soon lined 20’ deep and the newcomers then invaded the reserved areas. Those who paid for seats found a wall of humanity in front of them. Most of them, after a few minutes of being pushed around left the ground. The appearance of the teams on the field – incidentally the Indians took over five minutes to force their way through – was the signal for another rush forward and the touchlines were soon overrun.”

After placing a vivid picture of the activities of the crowd before his readers, the newspaper correspondent refers to the highlights of the match in an unusual yet interesting style. “Wedged as I was in the middle of the crowd, the only glimpses I had of the ball was when it was kicked into the air. An occasional blast on the whistle, and the cheers of the 30 per cent, who were able to see the match, were the only indications that I had that a match was in progress. A six-footer who had managed to perch on a table a few yards away kindly informed me that the Indians scored late in the first half.

“From the same source, I learnt that the victors added two more goals to their tally without reply in the second half.”

And at the end emphatically he added: “I will not make any attempt to describe play which I did not see. The scenes after the match were in keeping with the rest of this memorable day. Hundreds of pedestrians, cars, lorries, cycles and motor cycles all attempting to get through the narrow bottle neck which is the entrance to the ground, it was indeed fortunate that there were no serious accidents in the confusion. I was told that Ceylon FA had never expected such a crowd. Didn’t they know that soccer was the most popular game in Ceylon?”

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