Football: Most popular in the world, unhealthy in Sri Lanka. Why? | Sunday Observer

Football: Most popular in the world, unhealthy in Sri Lanka. Why?

7 June, 2020
Sri Lankan village boys start off by playing bare-footed football as this picture shows against some foreigners. But for most of them their passion is short-lived as they grow up and find that the sport is scrounged upon by 'maggots' and 'leeches' in the country (Pic

Many people know that football is the world's most popular sport, but how many know why it is so popular. Simple. In its principal rules and essential equipment, the sport can be played almost anywhere, from official football playing fields (pitches) to gymnasiums, streets, school playgrounds, parks, beaches or even on roof tops. This game was introduced to Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon) by the British.

There is evidence of it being played at Galle Face, a sandy area near the coast, by British servicemen stationed in 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.

But why is football not as popular as it was in the past in Sri Lanka. Is it that the country does not have talent or is that talent moving into other sports knowing that there is no future in football. Or have officials taking care of the game in Sri Lanka run it to the ground for their own benefit and discouraged young players. Heaven knows what happened.

Now enough is enough. Football in Sri Lanka needs proper backing. One just can't have just one good coach without players willing to play, you can't have good players without coaches, you can't have infrastructure without coaches. It sounds simple but it is not. All in the game, if the game is promoted in the correct way, the game will reach the top. Football has produced superstars in the past. The present goal should be to get Sri Lanka football sorted and getting the team up. The hope is that Sri Lanka will have a competitive place in international football and that should be the goal. It's a very exciting venture and all football lovers are looking forward to it.

In the past this writer has laid emphasis on British service units such as the Royal Air Force, Royal Navy, Royal Engineers, Royal Artillery and the Royal Garrison Command as 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.

To refresh readers, or those who may not be aware, the first ever attempt to organize and conduct football in Ceylon was when the Colombo Association Football League was formed at a meeting held in the Bristol Hotel, Colombo on April 4, 1911. H. French was elected President with HK Crosskey as Secretary. However, as a result of the First 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.  By 1924 Sir John Tarbat, that evergreen sportsman, became president and contributed immensely to the promotion of the game in the years that followed.

To know and appreciate the growth and development of football in Sri Lanka, it is necessary that one should know 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, 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 improved ball in a game called Harpustum.

However, it is 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. By fact, football, as it is now called, had its beginnings in England. With the naval superiority the English domination of the seven seas in full fury, the British sailors carried the game of football to the lands they conquered, with almost national fervor. It is the British who introduced the game to the Americas, Europe and Asia, through their battalions, regiments and brigades. It is not possible to say exactly, when football was introduced to Ceylon (Sri Lanka), as it was then called, because here again, the origins are lost, literally in the mists of time.

How did the British administrative service and the British planting community take the sport to the southern, central and up country regions with equal zest and fervor.

After all football is the easiest and cheapest game to introduce - a football and two sets of goal posts and a patched vacant ground are what is needed. Football is not like cricket. It has an unchangeable rule - kick must only be aimed at the ball. Indeed it was one of the earliest known rules of the game. In another aspect there is only one way of scoring goals in football.

In the good old days, football was a popular game and most of the Sri Lankans took to the game.  In 1952, Ceylon became a member of FIFA and got the opportunity to play football at international level. The country’s first International friendly was played against India. The Football Federation organized a tournament called Colombo Cup, which helped the national team to improve their skills and compete with other nations. From 1960s, our under 19 team competed in the AFC U-19 championship. Then in 1995 Sri Lanka won the South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Championship by beating India 1-0 in the final at the Sugathadasa Stadium.

Participating in football like any other sport provides many health benefits. It’s a physically demanding game that provides an opportunity for players to improve their speed, agility, strength, hand-eye coordination and over all cardiovascular endurance and a sport that brings the world together.

Critics say that football has had a tragic death in Sri Lanka. You cannot argue with them on this count.