Marso: A monument of sporting morality | Sunday Observer

Marso: A monument of sporting morality

30 August, 2020
Hafeez Marso
Hafeez Marso
On October 29, 1956 one of the finest of Sri Lankan sportsmen, Hafeez Marso, was born in Colombo to become the unsung hero and captain of the Police rugby team in 1989 and above all a role model of sportsmanship the likes of which are seldom seen today. It happened all by accident as Marso was never interested in rugby and his passion was basketball.

“I never had any serious thoughts of taking to rugby. It so happened that one day when I was at basketball practices at Police Park I was dragged to the rugby pitch not knowing that it is going to be a complete transformation and learning experience in my sporting career,” recalled Marso in an interview with the Sunday Observer.

With his spot-on goal kicking Marso was a match winner many a time when Police were the dominant force in inter club rugby during the 1980s and early 1990s until the entry of the Fijians to the civilian clubs like CH and FC.

A hardy prop forward, Marso was in the Police team that won the League title nine times and were runners-up twice during a period when rugby was of the highest quality and spectators got what they paid to see. In addition Police also bagged the Clifford Cup twice and the Premadasa Trophy on two occasions and in all Marso played in a record 18 Cup finals.

Marso is now a very well relaxed retired Deputy Inspector General of Police who led his team to become Triple champions in the League, Clifford Cup and Sevens in 1989.

He was a natural sportsman who also excelled in basketball and football for Police. Many of the rugby followers did not know that Marso represented Delmege Forsyth in the big league Mercantile basketball championships in 1977 and beat the most fancied team in the final Maharaja by 109 points to 100. In the words of Marso, the final was like an NBA match.

“When you look at the final scores, it was more or less like an NBA match that you rarely see in local club matches. Malsiri Perera, Remigius Perera, Granville de Silva, late KH Jayasiri and myself all national caps stood for Delmege,” said Marso.

He also had the privilege of playing cricket at the Mercantile tournaments with the likes of Gerry Woutersz, Praboda Kariyawasam, Malsiri Pereira, Granville de Silva, Ranjith Fernando, Rohan De S.Wijeratne and the late Malcom Mack.

But playing in the Police basketball team was a different scenario for Marso as the final against the Western Province at the Nationals in 1982 was a memorable one. Police, after beating Western Province in the group match 65-57 with seven national caps against three in Rohan Gunaratne, Palitha Siriwardena and Marso, lost the final 79-74.

The exit of Palitha and Rohan after committing five fouls with six minutes remaining cost them the match. According to Marso, though he was adjudged the best player of the tournament scoring 30 points in the final, Palitha had stood above him in the whole tournament with his skillful and intelligent play.

“I personally felt it was my team mate and good friend Palitha (Siriwardena) who should have got that best player trophy and the only thing I could do is to offer him the trophy after it was presented to me which I did“, recalled Marso.

It was an unbelievable gesture shown by a down to earth man of unique character.

Marso’s contribution saw Police win the most prestigious basketball Nationals in 1988, 1989, 1990 and 1991.

In 1983, when Police pulled out of the Clifford Cup knock-out tournament due to the July riots, Marso turned up for CR and FC who beat Havelocks in the quarter finals, Kandy SC in the semi finals and landed four long range match winning penalties to beat Army 12-9 in the final. “It was victory from the jaws of defeat,” said Marso.

As a place kicker for Police replacing Charles Wijewardena in the early 1980s, Marso was able to pass the century mark from 1983 to 1986 in all four seasons before he groomed Nizam Jamaldeen.

Marso’s best moment in international rugby was when he guided Sri Lanka to a memorable win coming from behind scoring 21 points (3 conversions and 5 penalties) against Malaysia at the 10th Rugby Asiad held in Bangkok, Thailand in 1986.

But Marso also experienced the bitter side of off-field rugby politics when he was deprived of the captaincy despite wearing the Sri Lanka jersey for ten years.

“I was deprived of leading the country by some of the people who were in control of Sri Lanka rugby and also sadly by the then management of Police rugby who towed the line with them for petty benefits,” said Marso who led the Police pack from 1987 to 1991 after Rohan Gunaratne left Police.

“Even being the captain of the Triple champion winning team in 1989 and as the most senior national player, a junior player was preferred over me who had not even led a school side to lead the national side for the Far East tour in 1989.

“What is most appalling is that the authorities changed the criteria for captaincy to suit the player whom they wanted to appoint. Had I stayed with a club, then surely I would have captained Sri Lanka even if I was a junior mediocre player” lamented Marso.

Marso’s loyalty to Police rugby was unquestionable as he even turned his back on a lucrative job offer from the private sector to play for a club. He still regrets that the downfall of Police rugby was due to the exodus of players joining a rival club for money.

“Some of them came back to the fold but those who did not may have regretted to see their former team mates rise up in the ranks and now walk with their heads held high,” said Marso who retired from rugby after the 1991 season but gave his heart and soul to law enforcement duties.

“I did my part more than what was expected of me as a sportsman and career policeman but a few top people who managed the affairs and some of the fortunate players were the ultimate benefactors of our blood and sweat.

“I must say that my mates Ajantha (Samarakoon) and Palitha (Siriwardena) had to face the same plight, but then no regrets,” said Marso.

During his police playing days Marso and his team-mates also had to follow orders and report for duty in the war zones of the north and east virtually forced into leaving aside their rugby boots to carry a rifle while some of the higher ranking officers savoured life in the comforts of Colombo.

But how does Marso compare the current rugby set-up with that of his playing days.

“Sri Lanka rugby needs some drastic structural changes with more emphasis drawn to school and junior national level. Provincial Unions need to focus on development of the sport. Without transparency and fair play there is no way forward,” declared Marso.