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  • Writer's pictureCam Wyper

Melburnian forward Oliver Kelaart realises his dream representing Sri Lanka

Nationwide riots and a FIFA-induced ban on all football activities have forced Australian-born Oliver Kelaart to wait nearly four years to obtain a Sri Lankan passport and make his international debut. Following the March international window, the 25-year-old has his first international cap and goal and a hand in creating a little bit of history for the country his father was born in. Whilst in camp, Kelaart told his story to Front Page Football.

Kelaart (front, right) and his Sri Lankan teammates at a training camp in Qatar in 2022.


“There’s a lot of people who are born in countries and able to represent other countries through dual nationality. It’s a great opportunity to do something different and to create something,” Kelaart told FPF recently.


In this instance, 'creating something' has a little extra meaning, given the overhaul Sri Lankan football has undertaken in the past few years.


Rewind to February 2020, when Sri Lanka appointed Amir Alagic as head coach of its national team. To improve upon the country’s lowly world ranking, Alagic opted to follow the example of his own nation of Bosnia & Herzegovina by reaching out to Sri Lankan-originated players based overseas. Up until then, Sri Lanka had relied upon the meagre talent pool of players from the non-professional domestic leagues, but Alagic hoped that bringing in players with experience playing overseas would help raise the professionalism of the group.


“In 2020, I was approached by Alagic, and he got the ball rolling in trying to get me a passport,” Kelaart said.


“Growing up in Australia and visiting the country has always been a part of my culture. I’d never really thought about representing them, though, because I was living in Australia, and obviously, you don’t know much about Sri Lanka. I don’t think many people know they have a football team.”

However, Sri Lanka’s unstable political situation slowed the passport application process. Following anti-government protests and riots in May 2022, Alagic was forced to leave the country and resign his position. Football Federation Sri Lanka (FFSL) President Jaswar Umar tried to continue to build upon Alagic’s work by forging a relationship with Tim Cahill and ASPIRE, leading to access to better facilities and coaches. Scotsman Andy Morrison was appointed as the new manager, and he led a training camp that Kelaart and other Sri Lankan-origin players were able to join at ASPIRE’s Qatar campus in October 2022.



“When we go there, everything is ready for us. The hotels, the gyms, the spas, the football pitches, everything is kind of in place. We actually stayed in the same hotel and accommodation as the Socceroos did. In fact, when we were leaving, the media from Australia were arriving for the World Cup,” he added.


The camp featured a friendly against Qatari second division winners, Lushail SC, which ended with a commendable 0-0 draw. However, the positive momentum was suddenly halted after Umar faced re-election as FFSL President in December 2022. Appointed to the role in 2021, Umar worked closely to amend Sri Lanka’s constitution to bring it up to FIFA standards and ensure grants from FIFA were invested directly into football in the country. However, the appointment of a new Sports Minister, Roshan Ranasinghe, shortly before the elections saw Umar ousted as FFSL President and replaced by J. Shri Ranga, and the new constitution ripped up.


This move prompted FIFA to hand Sri Lanka an indefinite ban from all footballing activity until new elections were held and a new constitution could be agreed upon. Ranga was then arrested for witness-tampering in February 2023, and the Sri Lankan government dissolved FFSL as a consequence.


It was not until September 2023 that FIFA lifted the ban on Sri Lanka following Umar’s re-election as FFSL President. The AFC drew Sri Lanka against Yemen for the first preliminary qualifying round for the 2026 World Cup, giving Morrison and Umar just one month to assemble a squad. It would be too late for Kelaart to be granted his passport before the international window, but he could travel to the country and support his teammates in the second-leg fixture.


“You can see the passion is there. You could see from the Sri Lankan fans that were there [that] there is a hidden passion despite not being able to see their national team play for three or four years.”

Kelaart’s international teammates gave those fans hope for the future, securing a 1-1 draw. Despite an aggregate defeat, the project’s foundations had been laid well.



“I went there as a so-called fan, but I was with the boys at the end of the game. I saw them at the hotel, but I wasn’t able to train with them. I could see the impact the foreign players joining the local players had made, even though they had not long been together,” he added.


“There’s been such a huge change, especially with the people involved. It’s brought more stability. We know the president personally, and everyone involved in the project shares the same dream. There’s a lot more trust in the set-up now.”

The break since the qualifiers allowed Kelaart and his fellow origin teammates to obtain their passports, so the March international window provided the first real opportunity for Morrison to bed in all of the newly scouted talent. Kelaart would be joined in camp by Brisbane Roar defender Jack Hingert and players from France, Germany, and Switzerland, all preparing to make their debuts for the island nation in the upcoming FIFA Series fixtures.


The FIFA Series is a new competition organised by the global football governing body. It aims to encourage international teams to play against nations outside of their own confederation. Sri Lanka hosted four matches, with Papua New Guinea, Bhutan, and the Central African Republic all playing in Colombo.


Sri Lanka’s opening match took place on Friday, March 22 against Papua New Guinea, led by Hingert’s former Roar manager Warren Moon. After starting on the bench, Kelaart was brought on for the final 10 minutes of the match, helping to see out a 0-0 draw and a significant clean sheet.



“I felt immense honour and pride. I’ve been waiting to be able to do this for so long. My grandparents were watching back in Australia, and my father came over to watch. I hope my family enjoyed the moment as much as I did because, without their sacrifices, I wouldn’t be here today,” Kelaart said.


However, this moment was just the tip of the iceberg for Kelaart, as three days later, he would score on his first start for his country in a 2-0 win over Bhutan.


“To date, it’s the most memorable moment of my career. Looking up and seeing 6,000 local fans in the stadium bursting with joy was a moment of pure happiness. Once the ball hit the back of the net, it was like everything was in slow motion, whilst adrenaline was pumping at 100 miles an hour. It’s something I’ve dreamt about, and I’m so glad it happened the way it did.”
 

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The match had even greater significance in the broader context of Sri Lankan football. This win was Sri Lanka’s first since 2021, and combined with the Papua New Guinea result, the first time they had achieved consecutive clean sheets since 2009.


“Sujan (Perera), our goalkeeper, told me in the dressing room that it’s the first time that’s happened during his international career. It’s a reflection of our defensive discipline throughout the game as a collective,” Kelaart explained.


“The win assures us that we are more than capable in moving forwards and towards our objective of becoming a competitive side in Asia. It’s a great acknowledgement of how hard the staff and players have been working."

So far, the new system appears to be working. Now, Sri Lanka has the opportunity to build upon the momentum they have created, and Kelaart cannot wait to continue to contribute to that.


“We have the chance to inspire a new generation of Sri Lankan footballers around the world. I want to bring belief and positivity into the country and give people something to cheer about other than cricket. There’s so much passion for football in this country, and it’s waiting to explode!”


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