Sri Lanka National Football Team will embark on another attempt to qualify for the FIFA World Cup 2022 which will be held in Qatar, starting from the 1st qualifying phase out of 5 phases to qualify for the prestigious tournament.
The then Ceylon Football Association was established in 1939 but was not part of FIFA. Only in 1952 did Sri Lanka get affiliated to FIFA. However, they did not take part in any of the qualifications for World Cup events till the 1994 World Cup in USA.
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ThePapare.com looks back at the history of the FIFA World Cup Qualification campaigns by Sri Lanka starting with USA 94 & France 98.
FIFA World Cup USA 1994
The World Cup was played from 17th June – 17th July 1994 but the qualification began in April 1993.
Sri Lanka, ranked 126th in the world, was drawn in Group F against Japan, United Arab Emirates, Bangladesh and Thailand. This was the first time the Island nation was embarking on a mighty tour first to Japan and then to United Arab Emirates for the first and second leg matches.
The 1st round of the group stage took place in Kyoto, Japan. Sri Lanka walked onto the field led by skipper Anandakumar Anthonypillai, the first Peterite to represent Sri Lanka Football.
Sri Lanka was pitted against United Arab Emirates ranked 51st in the world. 75 places above the Islanders. UAE won 4-0 as the Lankans gave their best.
Two days later, the game was against Thailand ranked 69. Another stern test for the Lankans. Head Coach Jorge Ferreira’s men played their hearts out but lost by a solitary goal.
Goalkeeper of the side Lalith Weerasinghe was exceptional along with the defence line of Sampath Perera, Junaideen Hasheemdeen, Ananda Anthonypillai and midfielders Chaminda Steinwall, KM Kabeer and R. Shanthakumar.
Next up was Bangladesh. Once again, a team higher in ranking than the Sri Lankans. 10 places above their South Asian counterparts who on 2 previous occasions have beaten Sri Lanka. Lankan lads showed exceptional grit only to lose by a goal to nil.
Two respectable margins of losses just the dose needed before taking on the favourites Japan on their home soil.
Japan, the highest-ranking team in the group, boasted of super stars like Kazuyoshi Miura, the 1993 Asian Footballer of the Year, and Brazilian born Ruy Ramos captaining Japan. The final game of the 1st group phase Sri Lanka lost 5-0. Considering the opponents still a very respectable score line.
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The second phase of the tournament was held in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The team was expected to travel to UAE on 2nd May 1993. A country already depleted with war went into a shock when the then President His Excellency Ranasinghe Premadasa was assassinated on 1st of May.
As Sri Lankans mourned the team wanted to stay back, Lalith Weerasinghe explained;
“We were supposed to go to UAE and then the President was killed. We did not want to travel during that time. But FIFA informed us we will have to pay a heavy fine if we didn’t take part in the qualifiers. With hesitation we traveled to play the remaining matches of the tournament.”
The return leg matches too did not go in favour of the Lankans as they lost all 4 matches. The score lines not giving the true reflection of the efforts put in by the team. Matches against UAE, Bangladesh and Thailand were lost 3-0 each and the game against Japan finishing 6-0.
Only two teams from Asia were taken to the FIFA World Cup in 1994. South Korea and Saudi Arabia qualified with Japan finishing 3rd due to the goal difference in the final round.
With much gained experience the team returned home and 2 years later in 1995 Sri Lanka won its first major trophy winning the SAARC Gold Cup beating India 1-0 in Colombo.
FIFA World Cup France 1998
After being crowned the Champions of South Asia the previous year, the World Cup campaign began in 1996 to qualify for France 1998.
This time Sri Lanka was grouped with Qatar, Philippines and the team which Sri Lanka beat in the final of the SAARC, India.
Before embarking on the campaign, the team had to play qualifiers for the Asian Cup, playing six matches against Iran, Oman and Nepal was the ideal platform for the team. They beat Nepal twice 3-1 and 2-0 in them.
Sri Lanka went into this qualifying campaign with majority of the team from 1993 to 95 still playing along with likes of Isuru Perera, Mohamed Roomy, Dudley Steinwall, Manjula Sirisena and Anton Silva coming in to join the much-experienced players. Sampath Perera was still leading the team and his deputy was Lalith Weerasinghe.
Others included, Ananda Kumar, TN Bagoos, J Hasheemdeen, KM Kabeer, Jagath Rohana, and Chaminda Steinwall.
This time the team was coached by the legendary P.D Sirisena. With the cream of the island’s talent with him the National Team was expected to perform well, and they did.
With only one team being selected for the second round of qualifiers as the group had only 4 teams the task ahead was stern. Sri Lanka had Qatar as their first opponents. Ranked 69th in the world the Gulf nation was expected to win the group. They beat Sri Lanka 3-0.
Next up was India who was smarting from the defeat in the final the previous year. The team comprised of Bhaichung Bhutia, Mani Vijayan, Carlton Chapman, Alok Das and a young Dependu Biswas who scored 6 goals against the Sri Lanka Youth team the same year in a tournament in Delhi.
Sri Lanka took the lead in the 15th minute through the boot of Anthony Silva fondly known as ‘Anta’ by the Renown supporters. The Indians hit back in the 39th minute with a goal from Carlton Chapman. The game ended 1-1 as both teams were not able to find a winner.
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The final game of the qualifiers was against Philippines. For the first time Sri Lanka was pitted against a team lower in the FIFA Ranking. 166th in the world and Sri Lanka on 126. Staying true to the standings the Islanders secured their first ever win in a World Cup qualifying match beating the Azkals 3-0.
Chaminda Steinwall scoring in the first half and second. Roshan Perera scored the third from the spot. Sri Lanka finished second behind Qatar and returned home with much admiration and respect. Future of Sri Lanka Football looked bright.
“The team in 96 comprised of quality individual players. The domestic competition level was very high and the players had tournament match experience. Their performance was on a very high level and the commitment of players was also very high. This is the main factor in us competing and winning matches.”
Comment below your memories as a player, fan or an administrator during USA ’94 & France ’98 qualification campaigns.