Creating Colombo FC
One man's vision may be his country's gain as football develops in Sri Lanka.
Last Modified: 10 Jun 2008 06:50 GMT

The players of Colombo FC have been in training for two months ahead of their debut season [Al Jazeera]

The thought of football challenging cricket as the number one sport in Sri Lanka may be one far from reality, but for Saif Yusoof and the players of Colombo FC, a dream needs to start somewhere.
While the Afghanistan national squad held a training session during the 2008 South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Championship in Colombo, another emerging team were going through their pre-season paces on the far side of the field.
Colombo Football Club, founded by Sri Lankan businessman Saif Yusoof just three months ago, were preparing for their debut season in the national football league's third division.

Yusoof, who was born in Sri Lanka but attended university and worked abroad in such places as the USA, Singapore and Malaysia, has a vision that sport, and football especially, can unite the island nation marred by civil war.

"I totally believe that football will pick up as a sport that will help within the community... "

Saif Yusoof,
Colombo FC president
"I studied and did some odd jobs overseas, but I decided that I wanted to create some kind of change," Yusoof told Al Jazeera.

"There is no point going abroad and studying if you're not going to come back and do something to where you were born.

"I was mainly trying to create some sort of a change in the country because we have so many problems going on, and I realised that I could do it through sport."

With a day job in shipping and logistics, Yusoof decided to start a football club in his spare time to give something back to Sri Lankan society and try to develop the game he loves in his home country.

Football passion

Colombo FC coach Dickson Silva, left, and club
president Saif Yusoof, right, [Al Jazeera]

"I totally believe that football will pick up as a sport that will help within the community because it has clearly helped other people around the world, and it develops relationships amongst people," Yusoof said.

"These guys are here out of passion. They are from all walks of life. Some of them are fishermen, some of them are students, but they all really want to play.

"I've got Tamil players, Muslim players. It's a big mix, and there is no problem."

Some Colombo FC players travel up to four hours by bus from the southern city of Galle to the capital for training on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday afternoons - sessions coached by former Sri Lanka player Dickson Silva, who was in the national team in the mid-1980s.

"We have targeted 2011 to make it to division one," Silva said.

"Our president Saif Yusoof is a good supporter - he wants Sri Lankan football to develop."

Captain Colombo

Kaja Munageen, Colombo FC captain, has loved football since the first time he played the game as a 14-year-old at school, and never thought of taking up cricket seriously.

Now 30, Munageen has the task of leading his young and relatively inexperienced side through their inaugural season, but he is confident of quick success.

"These players are good boys. Everybody is enjoying it."

Kaja Munageen,
Colombo FC captain
"These players are good boys. Everybody is enjoying it," the forward said.

"I played for Kalutara before and now I have joined Colombo FC.

"Our coach Dickson is very nice, very technical. We do a lot of fitness, and I'm sure we will improve over the next year."

Munageen, who added that he watched European football and is a big Manchester United fan, said that football was definitely the poorer cousin when comparing it to cricket in Sri Lanka.

"They don't give football much support. There are not many facilities for football," he said.

Arrested development

Football in Sri Lanka receives far less funding
and support than cricket [Al Jazeera]

In a country where cricket, with funding from both the government and private business, is very much the established number one sport, developing football, a game played mainly by the less privileged in Sri Lanka, is going to be a tough task.

However Yusoof was adamant that with the right management and organisation, along with continued help from Fifa, the sport's world governing body, anything was possible.

"This country, I am so confident that in the next four to five years there is going to be a big boost," he said.

"It's going to take some time, but I believe it's going to happen because football is the capital sport of the world, without a doubt.

"But I think for this to happen we need to do something about it. No one else is going to come and do something for us, and we can't just sit back and wait."

The club president added that success for the national team would make more Sri Lankans take notice of football, and that it was all about keeping up with regional rivals when it comes to grassroots development and increasing the fan base.

National hope

"We're nothing compared to European countries, or even our neighbouring countries for that matter," said Yusoof.

"For example in Malaysia and Thailand they have so many programs there, and we are so far from it.

"As it is, people are spending 10-12,000 rupees (about $100) buying a Manchester United jersey while the country doesn't have anything else. But there are still fans out there, to that extent."

Things are already looking up for football on a national level, with Sri Lanka set to take on fellow co-hosts Maldives in the semi-finals of the 2008 SAFF tournament at the Sugathadasa Stadium in Colombo.

Sri Lanka, runners-up in the inaugural SAFF Championship in 1993, last won the competition in 1995 when they were the sole hosts, but have since then only managed a fourth place finish in 1997.

Another South Asian title would be a timely boost for football in the island nation, not least for the players and management of Colombo FC.

Al Jazeera
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