by Andrew McSteen
US Ambassador to both Sri Lanka and Maldives, Atul Keshap, spoke to Ahead For The Game in Colombo, Sri Lanka at the Racecourse Ground, following the conclusion of the Elite Football League of India (EFLI) Sri Lanka Triangular League 2016 – an annual American Football competition held in Sri Lanka, supported by South Asia Gateway Terminals (SAGT).
In its second consecutive year, the EFLI Triangular League featured Colombo Lions and Jaffna Bulls from Sri Lanka and Peshawar WolfPak from Pakistan.
The Lions took the SAGT Trophy after winning both their games and received their trophy from Guest of Honour Keshap, attending his second day of the three match days.
“I’m always amazed about how many NFL fans – football fans – I find all over the world,” said Keshap, who, alongside the US, Maldives and Sri Lanka, has also lived in Nigeria, Lesotho, Afghanistan, Zambia, and Austria and worked as a political/economic officer at U.S. Embassies in Rabat, Morocco and Conakry, Guinea.
“Whether it is Mexico, Canada, UK, Australia; everywhere I’ve been people are fired up about American Football.
“With the NFL International Series too it’s great to see the NFL playing games all around the world – it’s a big sport worldwide and you really see a global game now throughout all levels. You’re from England (he said to A Head For The Game), we’re from America, and we have guys from Pakistan and the north and south of Sri Lanka.
“It makes me so happy to see it right here in Sri Lanka; 9,000 miles from the east coast and 9,000 miles from the west coast.”
From 2008 to 2010, Keshap was Director of the Office of Human Rights, Humanitarian, and Social Affairs in the Bureau of International Organisations of the State Department, where he helped lead U.S. efforts to frame multilateral human rights policy with regard to the United Nations system, including instructions to U.S. delegations to the Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly.
While the tournament in Colombo was purely about American Football, the community spirit shone through on, and off, the turf.
“First of all we’ve got some fantastic local sponsors, it’s not just the US Embassy,” said the 45-year-old Keshap, originally from Charlottesville, Virginia. “There’s a local football league in South Asia who we’re working with (EFLI), so it’s a huge amount of teamwork, but as Americans we, of course, love American Football.
“What’s great about American Football is the teamwork – any team is incredibly diverse. At this tournament you’ve kids from all walks of life, all stations of life and they’ve all come together as a team.
“We’ve got all of Sri Lanka here; we’ve got Jaffna, we’ve got Colombo, we’ve also got a team from Pakistan who have come in.
“Sport brings us altogether, this tournament has brought South Asia together, it has brought these kids together and it’s great for reconciliation, for sportsmanship, for teamwork and we love it – plus it’s American too.”
The ambassador attended two of the three days of the tournament, with the opening day played in torrential rain and the closing day played in strong sun and clearly enjoyed the spectacle, but ruled out participating on the field any time soon.
“That would probably be a really bad idea,” said the Ambassador laughing – and who has been a Dallas Cowboys fans since he was two years old. “I’m neither fast nor smart, so for me to play wouldn’t be a good idea – but the guys who played were great, they sure played some football.”
As the tournament finished and the camaraderie was clear between all three teams during the closing ceremony and presentations, thoughts turned towards the future of the tournament and gridiron in the region as a whole.
“It’s a little early to say,” said Keshap about the US Embassy future involvement. “But what’s for sure is that we have a bunch of dedicated folks in the Embassy who are working to spread awareness about football – and also baseball – to show a few of these American pastimes that we really love and get some local kids really fired up [about them] so maybe they’ll take it forward.
“We’ve got some fantastic local volunteers, local sponsors and people who are making it happen here, they’re clearly excited and this is a great feeling – it’s all about football.”