Sri Lanka undoes Ceylon’s football | Sunday Observer

Sri Lanka undoes Ceylon’s football

Football is no doubt the most popular game in the world and not many people in Sri Lanka may know of its origins both here and abroad and how it was introduced by the British who spread it to all corners of the island.

In recent years one of the men who played a part is Manilal Fernando who contributed much to the sport. It was due to his efforts that a Football House with all the facilities and  the Baddegana project with a playground and hostel facilities came into existence.

The sport’s word governing body FIFA gave their fullest  support to Fernando who was also the Vice President of the AFC and a Committee Member of FIFA. He  promised a fully fledged football ground and venue in Kandy and if this had happened the sport would have no doubt flourished in the region. But he will be remembered for what he did and not what he could not do.

One should know how football came to Sri Lanka. To know and appreciate the growth and development of football in Sri Lanka it is necessary that one should know even briefly the history of the game itself.

A few countries have a claim to the origins of the game, namely China, Greece, Italy and England. As early as 200 BC, the Chinese played a game with a leather ball, using both feet, mostly to keep the object under control. The Greeks enjoyed a similar sport which was called Episkyres while the Romans used an improvised ball in a game called Harpustum. However, it was medieval England that gave the sport a methodical and meaningful outlook, though using the inflated bladder of an ox as the sphere to begin with. In fact Association football, as it is now called, had beginnings in England.

With England’s naval superiority and their domination of the seven seas, British sailors carried the game of football to the lands they conquered, with almost national fervour. It was the British who introduced the game to the Americas, Europe and Asia through their battalions, regiments and brigades.

It is not possible today to know exactly, when football was introduced to Sri Lanka. However, there is evidence of the game being played on the Galle Face Green by bare chested British servicemen stationed in and around Colombo in the 1890s.

The service barrack ground at Echelon Square (where the Galadari Hotel is presently situated) and the Sports Club ground (presently the Taj Samudra Hotel) were the popular football fields in the game’s formative years.

British service units such as the Royal Air Force, Royal Navy, Royal Engineers, Royal Artillery and the Royal Garrison Command were the pioneers who promoted competitive football here. British administrative service and the British planting community took the sport to the Central, Up-country and Southern regions. By early 1900 football as a competitive sport, was popular among the local youth. Though playing bare footed, our lads mastered the skills and in fact donned the Service jerseys as replacements or reserves in many an exclusively white dominated game.

Formation of Controlling Bodies

The first ever attempt to organize and conduct Association Football in Ceylon was when the Colombo Association Football League was formed at a meeting held in the Bristol Hotel, Colombo on the 4th day of April 1911. H. French was elected President with HK Crosskey as Secretary. However, as a result of the World War in 1914, this body understandably became inactive and ineffective.

After a lapse of nine years, the Colombo Association Football League was revived and re-constituted in 1920 under the amended name, Colombo Football League, with Herbert Dowbiggin as President and H. French as Chairman and by 1924 Sir John Tarbat, that evergreen sportsman, became the President and contributed immensely to the promotion of the game in the years that followed.

Southern Province

In the Southern Province, the sport had a fair impact on the masses, with the planting and administrative community leading in the promotion of the game in a big way. R. Brough, a British planter in Deniyaya, contributed much to the sport in the South between 1910 and 1920. The British servicemen from the Navy wireless station in Matara also helped to popularize the sport, particularly in the southern schools. The first football club formed in the south was the Galle Association Football Club in 1910 with obviously a predominently British membership with RR Brough as its first President and the club team captained by AC Blair.

Central Province

Kandy, the hill capital of Sri Lanka, had its baptism in football in the mid 1930s. During the Second World War, British units were stationed in Kandy, with the one time Commander in Chief of the Allied Forces in South East Asia, Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten having his headquarters in the hill capital. Later on Kandy Amateur Football League was formed with MS Jainudeen as the head. It subsequently changed its name to Kandy District Football Association and served football in Matale, Gampola, Nawalapitiya, Kurunegala and Kegalle. As the years rolled by these towns formed their own associations.

Northern Province

Almost at the same time the British planters, technocrats and civil servicemen were spreading the gospel of football in the Western, Central and Southern provinces, the North too, came under their spell with a flourish of football activity among the local populace. School leavers and young government servants were grouping together to form football clubs, so early as the mid thirties. -

In fact, on the 8th of November 1939 to be exact, the Jaffna Football Association was formed with WG Spencer, District Judge, as Chairman. This historic meeting took place at the Jaffna YMCA with BE Rajanayagam as the elected secretary.

Football in the northern peninsula is as old as football in Sri Lanka and always remained active and vibrant until the outbreak of ethnic violence in 1983. Once again Manilal Fernando has started to give his fullest support and the Association is active.

North Central Province

The Rajarata, the place of kings and palaces and one of the places of scenic beauty and tranquility, is also a province full of recreation and sport. Anuradhapura the ancient capital of Sri Lanka, is a centre of activity, both cultural and recreational and football naturally took pride of place. The origins of football in the North Central Province is no different to that of the rest of the country.

The influence of the British civil servants had been at the base of its growth. These Britishers, with the assistance of the local youth, played football more as a recreation than in competition, in a ground close to the venerated Ruwanveli Seya.

History will not be complete if appreciation is not recorded of the encouragement and assistance extended to the sport by our heads of State such as first Prime Minister  DS Senanayake, Dudley Senanayake, Sir John Kotalawela, SWRD Bandaranaike, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, JR Jayewardene, R. Premadasa, DB Wijetunga, Chandrika  Kumaranatunga Bandaranaike,  Ranil Wickremesinghe and Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The singular contribution to football by R. Premadasa needs no elaboration. The re-development of the Sugathadasa Stadium shall stand as a living monument to his unremitting devotion and sincere admiration of the common man’s sport.

But overall it is a crying shame that what was once the pride of Ceylon is today of less importance to Sri Lanka. Or is it?