The Land of the Bat
The stuttering attempts of Sri Lankan football to establish itself it a country where cricket is king
The Sri Lankan footballers file into their changing room, which has a sign on the door that says, “SRIL ANKA”. Above them flies a small bat. When asked why Sri Lanka wasn't better at football, the Football Federation of Sri Lanka’s secretary general, Jaswar Umar, told me, “Because cricket has all the grounds.” In Sri Lankan football, bats always haunt you.
They keep the SRIL ANKAN door open, meaning you can see inside their changing room. At least they have one; the Malaysia team is changing in what is the lobby of the Sugathadasa Stadium, with only an office cubicle wall between them and the VIP ticket holders. For 500LKR you can get a great seat and smell a Malaysian footballer after his warm up. For 300LKR you can get a seat in the rest of the ground.
The FFSL have made a big deal of this game, saying on their signs – that they haven’t finished making and are still angle grinding 15 minutes before the match – “International football is back again.” It’s not “football’s coming home”, but for Sri Lankan football fans every home game is a big deal. This is Sri Lanka’s second home match since 2016; the last was a friendly against Lithuania – a 0-0 draw in July.
Part of the reason is that Sri Lankan football has no home.
The Sugathadasa Stadium is a multipurpose arena; there is no specialist football stadium in the country. This is an athletics track with grass in the middle. Behind one goal there is the steeplechase pit, near that is the hammer and discus cage, and hidden just out of sight are all the hurdles. The surface is a mixture of green and brown; it looks more like a local cabbage curry dish than an international football ground. It is, according to one fan at the ground, “not really in a central part of Colombo”.
There are no concession stands, the fans don't wear local football shirts and you cannot buy any merchandise. It’s a basic neglected arena, with concrete steps for seats on one side and spots for fire extinguishers, but no actual fire extinguishers. In the VIP section, there is a single toilet cubicle.
A big sign says “Support the yellow army”, but there is no place to buy a Sri Lankan football shirt (the closest was a chancer trying to pretend a cricket shirt was a football shirt) nor a single fan wearing one. The only person I see in yellow is a guy wearing a Borussia Dortmund shirt. The crowd is young, with few older men mixed in; there's a handful of European tourists as well and heaps of players’ relatives. No one seems excited, people just wait patiently, and in almost complete silence, for the game to start.
They scheduled the game to start at 1830. Online it was suggested it would be played at 1530 the day before. Not on the FFSL website, which is not currently functioning. The game doesn’t start at 1830, but some press find that according to the team sheet it was supposed to start at 1845. It doesn’t start then either. By 1853 we’re on our way. An international cricket game in Sri Lanka wouldn't start late unless there were a swarm of bees (that happened once), or a deluge of rain. This one begins late for no particular reason.
Sri Lanka start with the ball and the moment they kick off a papare band plays. The band – which is paid for by the FFSL – makes it more difficult to notice that there is something bizarre going on: the crowd aren’t making noise. That buzz of football crowds is absent, there is no chanting and no one shouts out encouragement.
Twenty-five seconds into the game Sri Lanka are dispossessed. Malaysia look bigger, stronger, more skilful and better drilled. Even the two managers seem miles apart. Malaysia’s manager wears a crisp white shirt, sensible slacks and expensive looking loafers. Sri Lanka’s wears a cap, polo shirt, shorts and trainers. One looks like a European manager, the other a dad about to enter a fun run.
Sri Lanka have fast players, they counter-attack well, but nowhere near the skills or system to move the ball into attack. When Malaysia have a set play, the Sri Lankan team seems to panic; they don’t so much fall into position as all travel in different directions like lost Sims characters.
There are two reasons Sri Lanka are good on the counter-attack: pace and Malaysia's arrogance. The visitors push forward implicitly, repeatedly, and back their defenders to handle any counter attacks.
That backfires because of one Sri Lanka player, Kavindu Ishan, their attacking midfielder. There are many players for Sri Lanka with pace, but Kavindu also has skill and match awareness. He catches Malaysia napping many times. But in the 29th minute, he shows up a midfielder and sprints past a defender so it's just him and the goalkeeper.
The goalkeeper rushes at Kavindu, who smashes it low from outside the box, and makes a save, but the ball dribbles off his hands straight into the path of the teenage striker Asela Madushan who slots in.
The noise from the crowd builds from the time the ball is stolen and it is loud by the time Madushan puts it away. But seconds later it’s near silent again. There are 1000 people in the ground, but unless something happens, they don’t make a sound. You can hear the players calling out to each other and during a break in the band’s playing, you notice the traffic out on the road. This doesn’t feel like a football match at all. There's no energy, no building tension and, crucially, no noise.
The Sri Lankan crowd cheers when they see a good stroke (good through-ball) and they go nuts when a wicket is taken (the goal). But that’s what this is, a friendly cricket crowd who cheer for a good tackle or moan at a lousy pass. It’s either polite and understated during regular play or just silent.
And yet, Sri Lanka are in front, in front at home. They have a goal at home; their first since November 2016 against Macau. There is a chance of winning; they've not won a match at home since 2013, when they beat Bhutan.
Bhutan and Sri Lankan football are linked. For many years, Bhutan were considered the worst international team. They were ranked 210th and last by Fifa, and in 33 years they had won only three games. Then they played Sri Lanka in back-to-back games during the qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup1. Bhutan won their fourth and fifth games. Bhutan are currently ranked 188th, Sri Lanka are ranked 199th. In 1993 their ranking was 124th. Directly above them in the rankings are Gibraltar, Samoa and Djibouti.
And it’s not like Malaysia are a big team in football. They’ve been on a similar decline over the last 30 years: they were once ranked 80th, and are now down at 171st.
You could say the Fifa rankings are an unpopped blister of awful metrics – no extra points for goal differential or away wins; the bizarre averaging issue that led to teams effectively losing points for winning friendlies – but observing Sri Lanka you can see why they're ranked low. They have no home, their team is disorganised and last week they played the imports from their local league and lost 6-2. The officials blame cricket for taking up all the green space, money and attention. The fans blame the FFSL for misusing the money that Fifa gives them (they have a nice office, but no website or social media presence).
The truth lies more in the fact there are only 1000 people in the ground in a city with a population of more than 700,000, and a province of more than 5.8 million. On a beautiful Friday night, with a team that barely ever plays, 1000 people is nothing. Football just isn’t that big in Sri Lanka.
Forget cricket, in other sports Sri Lanka might not be top of the world, but they've won two Olympic athletics medals, their rugby and volleyball teams are doing well, led by school participation, and their netball team is riding on the enormous back of the 6’10” Tharjini Sivalingam. It may be close to a single-sport market, but other sports are still punching.
You can’t forget cricket of course, because their men have won a World Cup, a World T20 and countless big Test series. Their women beat India and England. You can’t forget cricket because sport in Sri Lanka means cricket.
All while their football sides, women and men, are down the bottom. Their women haven’t played an international since 2016.
The men play little more, and their fans say little more. “Come on, boys,” is shouted from the cheap seats. It’s noticeable because this is the only time in the game there's any cheering that isn’t related to an on-field act. It’s just a football fan who loves his side, who wants them to hold on.
Towards the end of the second half, even holding on looks tough. Malaysia move the ball around better, and some Sri Lanka players are exhausted. One of their midfielders looks ill and is clearly not fit enough for international football – especially when you factor in that it’s 28 and 85% humidity in Colombo.
The rest of the team look little fitter.
If your team is not particularly fit, or skilful, you need to be quite disciplined, and Sri Lanka are gloriously ill-disciplined. They’re quite bonkers. Their players do bizarre things, like when one of them takes the ball from a Malaysian attacker near the penalty spot and then sets to run it out of the crowded box. At first, he runs around one Malaysian midfielder, but not content with that he tries to run around another – and the ball's taken from him. There are three separate attempts to chip the ball over the keeper's head when he is off the line, one of which misses the goal by roughly 22.3m.
The most fantastic moment of play again comes from a great attack from Kavindu Ishan, followed by a strong shot at goal, which beats the keeper but slams into the crossbar. It is quality football and leads to the ball ballooning 35m from goal.
It seems destined for a Sri Lanka player who has no one within 15m of him. He could easily chest the ball to ground, let it run down in front of him, and then take a shot, or put it back into a dangerous position, or one of the many good options when you have the ball in space and a scrambling defence not prepared for the ball to come from that direction.
He goes for a bicycle kick.
No doubt he has visions of appearing on the Sportscenter highlights as the man who flung himself around Zlatan-style from near halfway and managed to ninja kick the greatest goal in modern football. Sadly, and predictably, he misses the ball and falls to earth, like a bird dropping to the ground after it has flown into a window reflection it thought was a rival.
In the second half, it’s just a matter of when Malaysia will score. They are still loose in defence and Sri Lanka still have the odd chance on the counter-attack thanks to Kavindu (who more often than not seems to be too quick for his teammates’ passes and has to stop and wait for them). But there's no doubt there’s a bunch of goals about to come from Malaysia. They make their substitutions and Sri Lanka cannot due to their lack of bench strength.
The debutant Mohamadou Sumareh inspires Malaysia. He is the first Malaysian player of the modern era not born in Malaysia and with ancestry from there. Sumareh is Gambian and he’s really good. Sri Lanka doesn't grant any of their long-time overseas players citizenship.
Sumareh's obviously the best player on the pitch. He has gravitational pull, creating space elsewhere, and Sri Lanka’s defence looks lost trying to stop him. Malaysia score twice before he adds two final goals. Or maybe one; official confirmation was unavailable so one may have been marked down as an own goal.
With Sumareh on the pitch, you see the gap between Sri Lanka and being a good football team. He looks like a footballer; they look like blokes who play football. When the third Malaysian goal is scored in the 86th minute, the crowd begins to stand up and leave. They aren’t upset at all; the match has finished and it is now time to leave the multi-sports arena. As simple as that.
A handful of hardcore fans and family members cheer the team that played better than their talent suggests for 65 minutes, but that’s the only outpouring of emotion at the ground. The Papare, a sports website, will write a report on the game saying Sumareh was the difference and that Malaysia didn’t make the most of their dominance earlier in the match. There will be two comments on their report, one from a fan asking why there was no interview with the coach, and the other a 562-word response from the head coach of Sri Lanka about how he thought the match report was too negative.
The next day the few other match reports are hard to find and most of them focus on Malaysia or Sumareh, anyway. This with a teenage Sri Lankan starring with a goal. Cricket coverage is everywhere. It never stops: their captain's dropped because of fitness concerns, the news runs never-ending loops of their champion bowler’s comeback after he takes wickets against England and a former legend is in the news because of corruption charges.
After the match, Kavindu speaks to a friend outside the Sri Lanka changing room. He looks exhausted, and when you see him up close, you realise that he might be 25, but he looks like a boy still. There’s nothing of him, he’s paper-thin: he looks like a potential athlete, not the finished article.
As he talks a bat flies around above him.