Sri Lanka football brain quits leaving his heart behind | Sunday Observer

Sri Lanka football brain quits leaving his heart behind

1 May, 2022
Amir Alagic elated after Sri Lanka clinched a historic draw against India in the SAFF Cup in the Maldives
Amir Alagic elated after Sri Lanka clinched a historic draw against India in the SAFF Cup in the Maldives

When Bosnian-born Australian Amir Alagic was unveiled as the head coach of the national football team in February 2020, not everyone in Sri Lanka’s football community embraced him with open arms. Even though Alagic was armed with a European Pro Licence, many were skeptical he could resurrect the sport which enjoyed immense popularity but the playing standards were pedestrian to say the least. Languishing in the bottom of the pile in the football world rankings, Sri Lanka had no hope of even competing in the lowest regional tier of South Asia with countries like India, Bangladesh and Maldives lying way ahead.

The enormity of the task would have weighed heavily on him when he took over what he described as the “toughest job in Asia” but he was not short of enthusiasm eager to translate his many years of experience in different countries to help Sri Lanka football get out of the abyss. He drew up a blueprint to take Sri Lanka football to the next level but the onset of the covid-19 pandemic largely hindered his visionary ideas. He did not wave a magic wand but set out simple objectives such as being the best in South Asia as his first target.

Sri Lanka had no hope of making an impression when they went to South Korea for the 2022 World Cup Asia zone qualifiers last year. But Sri Lanka’s stock rose by leaps and bounds when they held Lebanon to a 3-3 draw and went down fighting to host South Korea.

The remarkable turnaround in fortunes continued with Sri Lanka being runners-up to Maldives in the SAFF Cup after holding mighty India to a goalless draw after 20 years in a group match.

The icing on the cake was when Sri Lanka beat Maldives and Bangladesh before going down to Seychelles in a four-nation tournament in Colombo. So within a short time span, Alagic had performed a mission impossible to transform the national team dubbed the ‘Golden Army’ into a potent unit. From head coach he was moved to the position of Technical Director of Football Sri Lanka (FSL). It was a position ideally suited for Alagic who is more of a football professor than a hands-on coach but the adverse situation in the country forced him to part ways with Sri Lanka football though he will work remotely till June because his heart is in Sri Lanka and is hoping against hope that he could make a comeback to work in whatever capacity to carry out unfinished business in the country.

There is no doubt his passion for the game far exceeds his portfolio and cannot be measured in terms of results. It is too early to judge the impact he had made on Sri Lanka football after just 26 months on the job having begun from scratch as he put it. But the biggest legacy he has left for Sri Lanka according to the man himself is hope.

“That Sri Lanka football is not hopeless. We introduced young players. Bringing European standards here is not easy. There is a sense of professional football after so many years of nothing. There is a clear structure and clear way forward,” said Alagic who has coached in countries like Bosnia, Germany, Australia, USA, Brunei, Oman and India before taking up his 17th assignment in Sri Lanka.

Due to the current economic and social difficulties, paying salaries in foreign currency is a difficult task at this stage. Therefore, FIFA, Alagic and Football Sri Lanka have mutually agreed to end his services as the head coach and the Technical Director of Football Sri Lanka. FSL believes that this is the best and timely option due to the country’s situation and for the betterment of Amir Alagic’s professional career,” said FSL president Jaswar Umar at a press conference.

“I am going as a happy man. I have brought back hope, gained respect and taken football to the rural areas. I must give credit to most of the media who were behind me every step of the way. I must thank President Jaswar Umar and his administration for trusting me. President Jaswar was a pillar of strength during these times. We need to continue what we started. I may leave but my heart stays here,” said Alagic.

The onus is now on Sri Lanka’s football administration to continue the reconstruction process begun by Alagic. “When a new coach comes, obviously I cannot influence. I hope he will continue what we have achieved. Structure is there and organization is not zero. There is a clear pathway on how we can succeed in future,” he told the Sunday Observer.

“Despite the pandemic, some disputes with previous management and a limited budget, I have to be happy with what I have achieved in a short time with all these obstacles. Hopefully the new coach will have all the coaching staff. I didn’t have a fitness coach, which was a big burden for me,” said Alagic who introduced the parachute analysis system.

“The whole world is working on that. Half of the success as coach lies on analyzing not just opposition, but your plans as well,” he added.

Asked why he couldn’t groom local coaches to take over from him, he said it does not seem easy as it sounds. “National coaches need a pro licence. We have a couple of ‘A’ licence coaches like Hassan Rumy and Dudley Steinwall. When it comes to the professional senior level, FIFA and AFC ask for a pro licence. That’s why we need another foreign coach for the time being. Right now we need two professional coaches, one to cover women’s football and the other youth development,” he explained.

One of his biggest disappointments is failure to develop women’s football. “We should bring more women to play football because half the country is girls. Unfortunately we have limited resources in this country. No place to have a national camp for training. They are hoping to have a provisional tournament for women and we get some funds from FIFA,” he said.

Alagic wants FSL to continue with the policy of inviting Sri Lanka-origin players based overseas to represent the country in internationals. “I introduced that for the first time as a head coach. Marvin Hamilton, Waseem Razeek, Dillon de Silva clearly show overseas players are educated players. Unfortunately we lost Duckson (Pulsas) while some senior players are close to retirement. The Super League is not quite strong enough to give us replacements so we have to go overseas. There is nothing wrong with that. Local boys are improving tremendously but still we have to wait three years to catch up internationally,” he said.

He paid a glowing tribute to defender Pulsas, man of the match in the match against India at the SAFF Cup. “He was a great gentleman and a fantastic player. Sri Lanka will take another 50 years to get such a player. Now it is easy to have a criteria for the national team - Duckson Pulsas,” he said pointing out the 0-0 draw against India was one of the high points of his time with Sri Lanka.

“Overall the national team achieved quite good results. We can walk upright with powers in South Asia. We need a stronger coaching system and sustainable grassroots programme. We have started flourishing in the eyes of FIFA. We had extraordinary results starting with Lebanon in Korea. We played eight international games in 42 days. We really had a good time together praising the players,” he said.