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Untapped Potential: Through the Eyes of a Sri Lankan Youth Player

Freelance writer from Sri Lanka specializing in article and blog content. Also, an active football fan supporting Leeds.

At the heart of a homespun team of Sri Lankan teenagers lies a nifty midfielder by the name of Shayan Perera, placing missile-guided passes throughout a pitch in Colombo. Together with the ‘Sotthis’, Shayan now voyages through grounds, looking to quench their thirst for fast-paced football in the capital city and catch a breath from the technical tiki-taka at his alma mater. With his adult years approaching, the young man is faced with a sad reality he shares with thousands of high-potential youth in the country; with the clock ticking on his playing days.


The first touches

Initially, it took a while for Shayan to discover his passion for the sport. Experimenting with various activities was an enticing opportunity for this athletic kid when switching schools. Cricket was the obvious option for a kid living in a country where ball-hitters were worshipped as local gods. But with irregular coaching and unconvincing stints at other sports; Shayan decided to check out football around this time since most of his friends were playing the sport.


However, with poor grades getting in the way, he had to take a hiatus from the activity for a while. Even through inconsistent training and missed-out tournaments, football was the only thing on Shayan’s mind. Instead of studying, he would dribble around the house with the ball, and practice his signature around-the-world in his room; constantly aiming to improve his skills, (which he described were horrible in the initial stages) no matter which time of the day it was. The lad shared his thoughts on what kept him going through times like this: “If I like something, I have a policy where you need to get better at it every day. Every single day you need to see some improvement”


If I like something, I have a policy where you need to get better at it every day. Every single day you need to see some improvement


At around age 13, after a significant break, Shayan got the chance to represent Alethea International School’s under-17 squad. Here, he got the foundational advice that motivated him to become a midfielder. Defending didn’t seem exciting enough. He also liked the idea of attacking but felt that being a striker would make him a lazy player. “The centre mid is the only position that will keep me playing throughout the whole game; the way I was supposed to play. It makes me run up and down the whole game”, he told us. As a CM, the lad likes to control the pace and possession of the game, like one of his many idols, Andres Iniesta.


After completing his O Levels, Shayan joined the highly regarded Lyceum International School in Nugegoda; where he took little time to settle into their football culture. The big man got a chance to represent Lyceum in the Zonal qualifications, where they became Runners-up, losing only to the prestigious St. Thomas in penalties. At this point, Shayan had represented two of the best International Schools in Sri Lanka’s budding school soccer circuit.


So as Shayan and the Lyceum squad were getting ready for the Zonals, which they qualified via their second-place win, the first lockdown hit. And while they prepped again for the postponed tournament, it was about this time that the second lockdown happened in the country.


A pre-match shot of the homemade team, ‘Soththis’. Shayan is on the far right

A pre-match shot of the homemade team, ‘Soththis’. Shayan is on the far right


So instead of assisting his teammates with solid through balls on a pitch somewhere; Shayan was stuck at home scrolling through TikTok, watching Netflix, and joining Zoom classes, which he loathed so much. But the young man also took the time and effort to look after his body during the lockdown and worked out regularly. Despite a negative trend in the performance of most athletes in lockdown, Shayan reported that his reflexes and stamina had actually gone up during the whole situation.


But with his A-Levels approaching this term, Shayan has to bid farewell to his school football career for good. He missed out on around 5-6 tournaments during the pandemic, which would’ve been his last games as a Lyceum player. But fortunately, he is a part of a little homemade team that goes by a rather interesting title.


The Soththis!

When he’s not providing assists to his fellow schoolmates, you’ll find him and the boys in one of the local futsal tournaments, that seem to be popping up everywhere throughout Colombo now. The street trend is really starting to pick up here, and it’s more than enough of an excuse for the ‘Soththis’ to go nutmeg some innocent souls who just wanted to play a casual 5-a-side on a Saturday evening. Their name could barely pass a censor as a borderline-swear word; while giving PTSD to any announcer who tries to iterate the moniker.


On certain days, the lads could be playing for a small cash prize on the sports day of tuition academies. But on other days, they could be in a high stakes battle against teams with members of the Sri Lankan National Team itself! On one of the latter occasions, the beloved team of degenerates managed to beat the heavy favourites, 1-0. (Not a surprise considering the lack of full-time football in the homeland)


Shayan and the Soththis have been close to reaching the semis of many major competitions, but have failed due to the impeccable standards of the players taking part. The competitors of street football are easily swept under the rug in any part of the world; through the commercial value and revenue systems in the traditional forms of the game. But Shayan’s experience and exposure to the circuit brings light to the scale of untapped potential in the casual forms of the beautiful game; even in a developing country like Sri Lanka.


The ‘Soththis’ receiving their trophy, after emerging victorious at an academy sports day. Shayan is on the far right, wearing a medal

The ‘Soththis’ receiving their trophy, after emerging victorious at an academy sports day. Shayan is on the far right, wearing a medal


After he’s eventually done with the A-Level papers, he’s hoping to hit up some more tournaments with the boys. For what might very well be their last games together; with the 5 members ready to set out on their separate paths in life. It may truly be one last dance for the Soththis!


Becoming a pro in Sri Lanka

When inquired about the possibility of Sri Lankan players competing at a higher standard, the young man had some interesting things to say on the subject.


“The way we are trained, the way we maintain our diet; it’s just not up to that standard”, he said. Players in Europe develop a high degree of competence, developed at a very young age; through their S-tier fitness programmes, consistent training regimes and optimized skill-sets.


It’s hopeless for our players to survive in a high-level atmosphere like Europe; with an Eden-Hazard level of dietary control, paired with an inconsistent training schedule. It’s a common concern for every sport on the island. In January 2021, 8 out of the 20 cricket players shortlisted for the tour of West Indies failed to qualify for the initial fitness tests; one out of the many cases in an unfortunate trend for the former (Cricket) World Cup champions.


The way we are trained, the way we maintain our diet; it’s just not up to that standard


“I had this issue of having constant pressure in almost every single game.”, said Shayan, highlighting one of his key problems as a youth player. According to him, this is a shared dilemma among most local athletes. “Even in cricket, our players are so pressurized... Not that they can’t play”, Shayan said, expounding upon the nation’s unavailing sports performance in recent years, “It’s a common problem we Sri Lankans have”.


Potentially world-class athletes are easily overwhelmed with high stakes situations. “If one of our players goes to a world-class standard [in football], he’s going to have too much pressure ”. We live in an era where world-class players with record-breaking transfer fees, like Real Madrid’s Hazard, for instance, are crumbling under the standards of a high degree of competition. If footballers that have been exposed to that kind of atmosphere and competition from a young age are struggling to cope with the stakes, there need not be any questions asked for the aspiring stars from the Pearl of the Indian Ocean.


Tottenham’s Heung Min Son takes control over the ball in a World Cup Qualifier against Sri Lanka in 2019. The Koreans took the W in a comfortable 8-0 win against the Lankans.

Tottenham’s Heung Min Son takes control over the ball in a World Cup Qualifier against Sri Lanka in 2019. The Koreans took the W in a comfortable 8-0 win against the Lankans.


It won’t take a genius to figure out that Shayan doesn’t have the aspirations of playing at a higher level here. In a hypothetical scenario where he was based in any part of the world with an accessible football culture; rest assured, he’ll follow that career path. But like many of the young players here; from proficient, high-potential squads like those operating at St. Thomas and Gateway; their football journey ends at the school level.


“It’s pointless… You won’t achieve anything playing here”, stated the disappointed young man who pointed out the lack of monetary incentive in the system to play professionally. The national team wages are exceptionally low. The Sri Lankan League is vastly unknown to the 20+ million people living here; a signal that constructive revenue streams are non-existent at a club level as well.


Overshadowed by a slowly declining cricket team, the football players are unheard of by the general public. The games are usually against the same old teams in the surrounding region. But once in a while, the team will be subjected to the pleasant experience of its defence being clinically ripped apart by Son Heung-min’s South Korea Squad.


Instead of being subjected to an unexciting, unprofitable line of work in football; many youngsters like Shayan choose the more stable route of college, hopefully leading to more fruitful employment options in the future. A path in football any in part of the world has its uncertainties attached; but here, it’s just an aimless risk with no tangible reward in sight.


Yasmin Bunter (left) and Marvin Hamilton (right) are just 2 out of the many exciting prospects that have been linked to Sri Lanka’s national squads

Yasmin Bunter (left) and Marvin Hamilton (right) are just 2 out of the many exciting prospects that have been linked to Sri Lanka’s national squads


However, there is potential brewing up in the South Asian nation. The Football Federation of Sri Lanka (FFSL) is bringing in several foreign-based players with Sri Lankan roots to their lineup. While footballers with English and Swiss citizenship are planning to enter the ranks of the men’s team; a promising prospect in the form of FC Basel’s Yasmin Bunter is now included in the women’s squad.


This could be the first out of many steps, in an initiative to finally develop a footballing economy that establishes solid revenue streams through the sport. There is a substantial number of fans who watch the European leagues here, who can be converted into fans of the local arena. Establishing it as a bonafide sport and employment option within the country will help to combat this form of internal brain drain; giving more players like Shayan, the confidence they need to take their game to the next level.


The end of the road

Shayan completed his finals this May. With his journey as a school player being subject to an abrupt end, he wishes to cherish this time with the Soththis. He’s certain that this will be their final games together; ending a memorable partnership in the circuit.

Shayan is one of the many people who are hoping for a change in the system. Sri Lanka is absolute miles away from the glories of a World Cup qualifier, when the public barely knows any of our players. But there is hope at the end of an abnormally long tunnel. With a new level of interest in the efforts to revive the sport in the country, surfacing in recent times; sooner or later, a renaissance in the scene is bound to happen!

© 2021 Chathuka Induwara

Comments

Chathuka Induwara (author) from Colombo, Sri Lanka on June 23, 2021:

Thank you for the feedback Mr Samatha!

Chathuka Induwara (author) from Colombo, Sri Lanka on June 23, 2021:

Thank you so much Mr Samira!

Chathuka Induwara (author) from Colombo, Sri Lanka on June 23, 2021:

Thanks Sanuk! Appreciate it!

Chathuka Induwara (author) from Colombo, Sri Lanka on June 20, 2021:

Thank you, everyone, for your kind feedback so far, both here and in DMs. It was amazing to see such a response. I'm truly thankful for your support!

Samantha Samarasinghe on June 20, 2021:

Well-done Chathuka, you have great writing skills, beautifully written and showing a lot of promise & talent to be an extraordinary writer. I wish you all the very best and good luck in all your future endeavours.

Samira F on June 20, 2021:

Excellent article. Happy to see a young guys positive approach. Good luck for your future Chathura.

Thilan Prasanna on June 20, 2021:

Nicely articulated. Good job Chathuka.

Sanuk Pieris on June 20, 2021:

Beautiful piece! Made me feel like i was in the story. Hats off!!

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