by Thilak S. Fernando

Upali Jothirathne is mostly known as one of the ‘partners’ of Lihiniya enterprises in London. His obliging quality and the broad smile reach beyond commercial perimeters, especially to Sri Lankans when they visit his shop as customers. Hidden behind this medium built frame of a man lies a store of concealed information about an evocative sports career in Sri Lanka. Starting from kicking a tennis ball bare-feet he has finally hung Addidas boots after a successful career in soccer. He had rubbed shoulders on the football field with a present. Government Minister and many high ranking officers in Sri Lankan Army, Navy, Air Force and the Police and many of them have also gone through Upali Jothirathne’s training courses in soccer at college and club level, during his tenure as a football coach. Having undergone special training as a football coach in West Germany he has trained hundreds of young men in the Mercantile as well as the Public Sector in Sri Lanka; also students in Colombo schools. When Cricket and Rugger were favourite sports at the Royal College, Colombo, Upali Jothirathne, as the Official Football Coach at Royal, managed to turn the wheels in a different direction and made its soccer team to become champions in Colombo South. He likes to lead a quiet and an undisturbed life and after much persuasion, finally he consented to speak to NewsLanka - Face2Face.

Q. Upali, by looking at your unassuming profile, no one will think that you were such a good and a famous soccer player in your enchanting days. But of course, to the trained eye your walk will prompt something i.e. -you seem to walk in the same manner one would dribble the football on the soccer field! Did you play Centre half or a Wing?

A. There may be a certain amount of truth in what you are saying. I can’t see the way I walk but the dribbling effect could have affected my walk having played soccer for a long period. Yes, I always played the left inside position and it involved quite a lot of running around zigzagging the players and dribbling the ball all the time. I put on the No.10 Jersey right through, where great players like Pele, Maradona, Zico, Pushkas, Stefano, and Platini wore.

Q. At what age did you start on your Soccer career?

A. Actually at the age of 12 or13. My father was a better-quality player during his time. He took me to watch football matches at City League & Govt. Services grounds as a young boy. No one taught me initially and it was just by constant mucking around with boys as school kids.

Q. Where did you play or practise at first?

A. During my childhood, there was a strip of land just behind ‘Temple Trees’ in Colpetty and we were constantly playing football with a tennis ball with whoever was available, because for kids it was something of a game to kill time and have fun with.

Q. So how did you ascend yourself to real soccer playing?

A When we were playing behind Temple Trees, a member of the Colpetty United Sports Club had been watching me. Later he invited me to join the Colpetty United Sports Club. At the same time, I played for the Zahira College soccer team, the invincible School Champions of yester year. We were so engrossed with the game..

Q.. Were you initially coached at Zahira College then ?

A. Yes and No. We had an official coach by the name of Hussein who was in the Tutorial Staff of Zahira College. He had been a great soccer player at St. Aloysius, Galle. While I was at Zahira my other mates in college played for reputable clubs such as Saunders, Colpetty United, Eleven Lions etc., So we all had ‘ on the ball’ experience, if you like, to absorb finer points from the Zahira Coach and combine with our personal experiences at club level.

Q. What position did you play on the field?

A. I became a very popular player very quickly and I was given a permanent position of the left inside. This is the position where world famous soccer players such as Pele in Brazil, Maradona in Argentina and Andrew Fernando in Sri Lanka used to play. This No.10 position is the best position a player can dream of in the forward line. I was a very good dribbler and my favourite shot was the acrobatic cycle kick. I maintained this permanent place of 10 at Zahira also.

Q. Who were the other team mates at Zahira at the time?

A Hon. Minister of Highways, Mr. A.H.M.Fowzie and I played together on the same side and he was a fantastic soccer player. I am glad to see that he has been scoring goals all the way in life too, not only in soccer but in his political career as well, and has risen up the position of a Government Minister.

Q. Are you in contact with the Hon. Minister now?

A. Actually, when he became a Minister I sent him a congratulatory note and I was so happy that he wrote back to me thanking me for it (not a stereo type formal letter signed by a secretary) He had also mused over our old soccer playing days. It was wonderful of him to have remembered and specifically written about it at a time when he rose up to the plinth of his political career.

Q. What progress did you make while you were in College and playing for Colpetty United Sports Club simultaneously?

A. This opened up the whole world for me in soccer. I played for Nationalised Services team, Mercantile Football League and Sri Lankan Football Team. I was chosen as a member of the contingent to play against Young Boys Berne, a visiting team from Switzerland, Spartak, Praha of Czechoslovakia. Later on again, I was chosen to the contingent to play against Brazil Madureira Athletic Club.

Q. So, did you continue with Colpetty United Sports Club after you left school also?

A. I was the first ever non-Muslim to Captain the famous Zahira College team in 1960 whose players ended up as National Caps. After my GCE O.L, I was very fortunate to be absorbed into the Wellawatta Spinning and Weaving Mills staff - may be my soccer background helped me.

Q. Did you play soccer for the Spinning and Weaving Mills club?

A. Yes, straightaway I was given a place in the team. When I joined them, they had only a football club . Later I became the Sports Secretary at the S & W.Mills club and developed it from football into a sports club status where I organised various other aspects of sports too, including Volley Ball, Cricket, Athletics etc. We played football at the Police Grounds. Our team became one of the best in the Mercantile Sector when I was the Sports Secretary at the Mills.

Q. Were you restricted to play for Wellawatta S & W Mills Club and Colpetty United team?

A. No. While I was playing for the Mills, Mercantile Football Association invited me to play for them. Mills were taken over by the government later and it made me automatically join the Nationalised Services Football Association, which was a Representative of the Ceylon Football Association.

Q. Did you not take part in Inter-District football matches at all, or were you only concentrating on top level and International teams?

A. Before I joined the ‘Ceylon’ team, I did take part in many inter-district tournaments playing with the cream of the players in Sri Lanka. I represented the Colombo South District and our opponents; the Colombo Central, had many National players such as Sirisena, Zainul Abdeen, Somapala, the famous goalkeeper Haseem Deen etc.. Somehow we, won the tournament, and it was a great boon for me to have scored the very first goal for Colombo South in the presence of the chief guest, Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, the Governor General of Sri Lanka. Ultimately we won by 2 to 1.

Q. This must have put you on top of the soccer ladder undoubtedly!

A. Yes, indeed, overnight I became very popular. On the strength of that performance, I was called upon to join the Ceylon National team

Q. Have you ever played soccer for Ceylon abroad?

A. My first trip was to India with the Mercantile Football Association team in 1962.

Q. Were there any floodlit football matches during your time?

A. Yes, I was a member of the football team that won the first ever-floodlit match in Sri Lanka. James J. Sarangapany, who was a first grade footballer, introduced floodlight soccer to Sri Lanka.. When floodlight soccer was introduced. Sarangapany was the Football Administrator and President of the Football Association

Q. Was the tournament in which you took part a floodlit one?

A. Yes. Many clubs such as Saunders, Ratnams, Victory, Old Josephians, and Colpetty United played against each other at this floodlight tournament. Saunders were the hot favourites, but our team Colpetty United beat them. To our advantage, we had a German player by the name of Karl Heinz Waigang, who was a first class footballer from Germany, attached to the CTB Training School. On the field, Karl Waigang played alongside with me. We beat old Josephians in the final re-play, having drawn the first match 1-0, when Peter Ranasinghe captained the Josephian team.

Q. Can you tell me something about your coaching career in football?

A. When I became the Assistant Secretary of the Mercantile Football Association I was also made the Coach of the Association. After a few years, I became the Coach for the Nationalised Services. I took my team to Kerala District to take part in Sri Narayana Guru Swamy Tournament at Canarore, the capital of Kerala District. I have attended several football seminars and received several certificates too. Toughest of the seminars was one conducted by.Echard Krautzan of Germany at the Sports Ministry Grounds. At the end, I emerged in flying colours.

Q. How did they appoint football coaches during your time?

A. Ceylon Football Association made the appointments in the first place by looking at players’ records of accomplishment. There was a team of National Selectors as well attached to the Association. Once in two years there was a scholarship for two players at the Sports Schedule in Kern, Badhennef, West Germany to be trained as Grade ‘A’ Coaches. I was selected for this course in 1980 and underwent a full training course as a Coach. All coaches of Afro/Asian countries attended this training course. The course was conducted under the sponsorship of German Bundas Leaca (German Football Association).

Q., Was that training beneficial to the game ?

A. I am thankful to the Sri Lankan Football Association who afforded me that opportunity to be trained in West Germany as a Coach. Altogether thirty-eight countries participated in the West German training school. It was a fascinating experience and we had to cover both theory and practical and prove ourselves as well, and it was not by any means just a scholastic piece of paper. John Fernando, another National Cap was selected for the same course with me, and we both went together to Germany.

Q. What progress did you make after this training in Germany?

A. Once I returned home, Sri Lanka Football Association appointed me as a Coach to train the Youth National Team. Subsequently I was made the National Coach for the Sri Lanka Selective Team. I did a good job of it and won three matches at a Maldivian Tournament played in Male. Subsequently I succeeded Perinpanayagam as the Football Coach at Ananda College and continued there for about 10 years. During my time, Ananda College managed to beat St. Benedicts and St. Josephs as well. After Ananda I succeeded C.H.M. King, who was the coach at the Royal College. Under my coaching the Royal football team won the first ever Colombo South School Championship. This was a time when Cricket and Rugger were the vogue in sports at Royal. I must stress here that all my coaching stints were honorary and I did not charge a penny from any of the schools.

Q, How many times have you represented Sri Lankan football abroad?

A. About 6-7 times. I was also a member of the Sri Lanka Olympic Soccer team that took part in the pre-Olympic rounds that were played against India.

Q. Have you played at the Sugathadasa Stadium at all?

A. Yes. It was a rubbish dump earlier. Mr. V.A.Sugathadasa converted it into the first ever stadium in Sri Lanka. I was privileged to play the very first football match in the Stadium where two representative sides comprising crème of players were chosen.

Q. Why, in your opinion, has the game of football subsided when Sri Lanka had produced very good players like Somapala, Tom Deen, Haseen Dean, Zainul Abdeen, Lionel Peiris, Piyadasa Perera, Ranjith Silva, D.P. Kulasiri, Tom Ossen, Peter Ranasinghe Andrew Fernando, Lawrence Fernando and yourself?

A. Ceylon team was a very strong squad during my time. The standard of soccer was very high and we have played international games with Burma, Pakistan, India etc. However, we did not have adequate coaching facilities and football was regarded mostly as the poor man’s game, and the players had to undergo many difficulties. Now they have various committees and job opportunities for the players, like in the game of cricket, but unfortunately for some unknown reason, this game of soccer never rose up to the international standard like our cricket.

Q. How about the role played by the Football Federation?

A. They are doing a yeoman service in their capacity but not to the extent of cricket, I suppose! Football is unfortunately played today in rural areas. During our time various clubs were interested in picking up players and training them, the media and the press were very helpful and performed a prominent role in publicising the game, but today it lacks to a greater extent.

Q. How do you feel about when you think of your old haunts where you rose up to the occasion by kicking goals during football matches ?

A. This is one aspect where I feel very sad. Echelon Square, Govt. Services Sports Club Grounds, Army Grounds etc have been converted now to build star hotels for the tourist industry, and this is not helping football at all. Take cricket for instance, there are so many grounds such as the SSC, MCC, Colts, Tamil Union etc. and that facility is not available unfortunately for football !

Q. What other memories come back to you when you think of your football days.

A. I am always indebted to Charles Heenatigala who helped me at the very beginning. Mahinda Balasuriya was the one who gave me my first pair of boots. Then J. K. Amarasena, Personnel Manager absorbed me into the Wellawatta Spinning Mills and Ranjith Pandithage, Chairman DIMO Agencies.

Q. With your background, experience and enthusiasm, and as you put it, football being your first wife, why have you not organised a team or a tournament in London similar to that of Cricket and Rugger that has caught up among the expatriate community here?

A. In fact, I have spoken to many about this and offered my utmost backing and support. I have offered to coach players as well. Once I spoke to Dr. Jurangapathy also about it very seriously. There are two very good players in the UK today, Ivan Amaranayake and Sam Chandrasinghe whom I have coached in my time at Ananda College and are doing very well in their chosen fields in life, but unfortunately it seems to have the same effect as in Sri Lanka and the idea does not seem to sink in – very unfortunate!

Q. Can you remember any other big names today, that have passed through you during your football coaching days?

A. Yes, there are many Senior Officers in all three Forces in Sri Lanka today. Even in the Police Force, there are senior officers who were coached by me during my time at college level. It makes me happy to know that they are all doing very well in life now.

Q. Have you come across any of your old mates in London ?

A. Yes, it was a great pleasure to meet Brigadier Sarath Weerasekera who was trained in the soccer field under me. When he was in London, he visited Lihiniya shop and we had a very refreshing conversation going back on our memory lane. So was with Peter Ranasinghe, with whom I have been playing on the same filed. I met him again at the Lihiniya Restaurant after 25 years during an old Josephian lunch. Didn’t we reminise about football?

Q. How do you feel now looking back at your illustrious by-gone soccer career?

A. I suppose it’s a fact of life. You do your best when you are young and able and now like anyone else I have to grow old gracefully. However, I never miss watching football matches whenever time permits even on television. One thing I am very happy about is that my younger brother, Asoka Ravindra, who is well known in the soccer arena as “ Asoka Master” who followed my footsteps and ended up as one of the best soccer players in the Island. He has played for several years for Sri Lanka, representing both home and at International matches. Once he played as a professional soccer player in Bangladesh Representing Abhani Kreeda Chakra in Danmondi. He too, ended up as the National Soccer Coach of Sri Lanka. At present, he is coaching Ananda College and Sri Lanka Navy teams in an honorary capacity. He, indeed, is an unforgettable by-product of my soccer.

Q How would you summarise all what you have achieved as a soccer player in a couple of sentences?

A. I was inspired to play football by my father who took me to watch matches quite often and having watched the game, I suppose it ingrained within me. Then I had this childhood ambition and a dream to play for a first class team, then to represent Sri Lanka as a player. Not only did I represent Sri Lanka as a player, but later in my career ,I had the honour of refereeing, coaching and also helping the Football Governing Body – both as a member and a National Selector. In short, I went out to the field, did my best and now from the pavilion I watch how the game is played and still enjoying it.

Q. One personal question, if you don’t mind. How did you manage to find a suitable partner not only to blend with your present business activities but also to blend with your name – Upali – Meepali !

A. Tilak, thank you for pausing this very interesting question. There’s an interesting episode behind it actually, which I cannot go into detail here. But as you already mentioned, my wife, the one and only Meepali, blends nicely with the business and rhymes well with my name too. And must I say more about my life with her?. I must say one thing though, that unlike in football I had to ‘dribble’ quite a lot and penetrate through an extensive and tough defence line of all eyes of able and eligible bachelors (not sparing the English Managing Director of the firm we worked for ) to score this life long goal. Undoubtedly that’s the biggest goal I have scored in my life.

Q. What is your final wish with regard to soccer in Sri Lanka ?

A. My final wish is to see Sri Lanka Football is brought to the same standard of cricket, which has put us on the world map. It is my candid opinion that if we are to rise up to International Standards, we must introduce Professional Football in Sri Lanka.