The Sri Lankan football team is about to enter their toughest challenge in history. After more than 25 years of waiting, this Southern Asian country finally advanced to the World Cup qualifiers second round. The only full-time and foreign-based player, goalkeeper Weerasinghe Sujan Perera, played a vital role in this achievement and will play in the upcoming group stage. Can Sri Lanka pose a threat in the difficult Group H, alongside South Korea and North Korea?
Usually, when people hear of Sri Lanka it is cricket, or surfing along beautiful beaches, that come up to their minds. It is rare to see someone think of Sri Lanka as a football country. That’s not surprising at all. Sri Lanka doesn't have a professional league and has consistently failed to reach the second round of the World Cup qualifiers. Additionally, the Asian Cup is a dream that the Golden Lions are yet to achieve.
Right before their opening Group H game against Turkmenistan, we had the chance to speak with Perera, in an exclusive BabaGol interview. The international goalkeeper didn't hesitate to show his excitement to play against the Asian powerhouses, while also emphasizing the importance of international support to improve Sri Lankan football.
Ayubuvan, Sujan! Is that how you say 'Hello' in Sinhala?
Yes, it's perfect!
How are you doing recently? Are you looking forward to the World Cup Qualifiers?
The local league is already on a break. I just rejoined the national team now.
It must feel good to be back in your hometown. Your team is grouped with South Korea, Lebanon, North Korea and Turkmenistan - all have took part in the 2019 Asian Cup. What are your thoughts?
We are so excited because it's our first experience in the WCQ group stage and we are lucky to play against teams like South Korea, who played in the World cup. I hope Son Heung Min will play!
We all hope so! Also, since you play against North Korea, you might go to Pyongyang. How do you feel about that?
I heard that the match might be played in a neutral ground. Still, I don't know about it officially. I will follow what the officials say, whether it's neutral or in North Korea.
Let's shift to your personal story. Sri Lanka is a 'Cricket country'. How did you first choose to play football? What's the story behind it?
It's difficult to play football in Sri Lanka since Cricket is the primary sport in the country. I started to play football because of my brother. He opened the world of football for me. Now it is my passion and life.
Your brother must be very proud to see you playing for the Sri Lanka national team. Did you always play as a goalkeeper?
I played as a goalkeeper from the beginning, and I loved it since then. Still, I love and enjoy my duty. I believe that being a goalkeeper is the hardest job on the field, but it doesn't bother me. It is a special position to play. We dress differently, play differently and treated uniquely.
That’s for sure. When did you first get a professional contract. How did it feel?
The Sri Lankan league is not yet a fully professional scene. Players cannot focus solely on football but must also work to maintain a stabilized financial condition. It's a steep road, but our players are trying their best. It was in 2015 when I signed my first professional contract in the Maldives, with Club Eagles. And I still play for them.
You are the only player in the current national team squad to play overseas. What are the advantages and disadvantages of playing in a foreign league? Would you recommend young Sri Lankan talents to go abroad if they have a chance?
One advantage is that I play more matches which leads me to gain more experience. But a con is that I get a small amount of time to prepare with the national team. As for the the youngsters, I always want to tell them to move abroad. We have many young talents, but we don't have a good structure or a decent agency and scouting networks. That's why it's complicated. As I told you, cricket is our primary sport, but we are trying to improve our football towards the top level. For that to be possible, we need more support from outside our country, which could lead our players gaining more experience.
You definitely can set an example for those young players, like Ji-sung Park was for South Korea.
Speaking of that, which Sri Lankan players should the fans look out for?
We don't have star players like Son. We have a young team that is looking to give their best for the country. You have to watch it while we play.
It is the first time Sri Lanka advanced to the 2nd round of the WCQ. Last time around Bhutan defeated you. Also, you were eliminated in the group stage of last year's SAFF Championship (Suzuki Cup). Those must've been a hard experience for you and the team.
It was a hard experience indeed. We don't get many friendly matches, only the SAFF Championship and the Solidarity Cup. But we never got loosened up after that day. We were worried for a long time, but now we are super excited, waiting for the kick-off. I hope we give a good fight.
The journey to the second round was also exceptional. I felt terrible for how Macau behaved - after the Sri Lanka Easter Bombings, they treated your country unsafe and decided not to travel to the away game. It was disrespectful towards Sri Lanka.
It was sad. Sri Lanka is safe to visit. It is a beautiful country with small islands, beautiful beaches, wildlife, historical places, waterfalls and fascinating cultures. We were disappointed that Macau didn't come to play the second leg. We worried for a few weeks, but we managed to solve everything. It was just one dark day that ruined our country down. If you come once, surely you will visit again.
What do you want to achieve in the future?
I have two dreams in terms of a team goal. One would be to participate in the World Cup, and another is to win the SAFF Championship. Personally, before retirement, I want to play in the Indian Super League.
Is there anything you would like to say to the Sri Lankan fans out there?
There are many Sri Lankans who work in South Korea. Hopefully, everyone will come and support, and we will give everything for a good result. Just come and support us!
Thank you! Good luck in the qualifying matches, and the league as well. Obata satautaiyai (thank you)!
Okay, god bless you, thanks!