25 April 2018

Fazil Marija cannot stop making plays

When someone’s name becomes synonymous with a particular sport you really don’t have to talk about the legacy he leaves behind when he retires.  We don’t have to tell rugby players or rugby enthusiasts who Fazil Marija is. They know. 
The statistically inclined would know the records; the number of tries in each season, the number of wins and losses, the titles won, how many times he donned the Sri Lankan jersey etc.  They would know the relevant percentages and of course how he compares with his contemporaries and the greatest who played the game for Sri Lanka.

There’s also a Marija who lives, eats, breathes, cares and loves outside the field.  To be sure a lot of that stuff is directly or indirectly associated with the sport.  He can’t help it. He grew up in a family that almost thought rugby was oxygen.

Tuan Mohamed Fazil Marija was born in Mulgampola, Kandy on December 4, 1985.  He was born into a clan, essentially, with 20-30 members of his extended family being among his neighbors.  

“My father, who was in the Police, passed away when I was six.  My mother, who worked at Sarvodaya, had a tough time taking care of my brother Faizal and me. The family was there, always. My uncles and cousins were ruggerites. 

“Almost all of them played for Kingswood College, while some went on to play club rugby for Kandy Sports Club, Police Navy and CR.  And my mother was also a rugby fan. She made sure we never missed a game. He would go with the entire clan to watch his cousins and uncles play school and club matches. Niloufer was of course the main inspiration. He was 7-8 years old and played about 10-12 years for Kandy.  I watched all his games. Well, the entire family did.

Fazil grew up playing tap rugger with his older cousins, Niloufer Ibrahim and Amjaad Baksh. He moved to the real deal when he was just 11 years old, playing under Amjaad who was the Under 13 captain of Kingswood. At the tie he played as Scrum Half and Fly Half, but it was playing in the latter position that he would make his mark. 

“All my cousins played in that position. I grew up watching them play. I learned a lot this way.”

Fazil made it to the Kingswood First VI in 2002 and in 2004 would lead the team to secure multiple trophies in an unbeaten season. That year was of course special, but he remembers the previous season as well when Kingswood having won the B Division won the right to play in the knockout tournament which they went on to win.  

“I still remember vividly the quarterfinal game against Isipathana. The game was tied at the long-whistle. It was still tied when extra time ended. Then it came down to drop goals. That didn’t produce a winner either. Finally, the winner was decided on a coin-toss. We won. We were lucky.”

Looking back at Fazil Marija’s career, one might think it was a breeze, a smooth ride without bumps. This is not true. 

“In 2002 I was dropped from the Sri Lanka Under 19 team. I was devastated. There were coaches who said I couldn’t kick or pass. That was a turning point. I wanted to get back. I decided to fight. So I worked hard.”

That snub had motivated him, but the greater motivation lay outside the rugby field.   

“My mother had to struggle very hard when we were small. She suffered a lot. This I never forgot. I always wanted to give her a good life one day. This desire was my greatest motivation. This is what made me focus. This is the secret of my commitment and work ethic.”  

Fazil has a wonderful and disarming smile and his fans must have seen it a thousand times. He smiled when he talked about a break got.

“The national coach, George Simpkin, spoke to me one day. He talked about playing. I didn’t know much English at the time. I thought he wanted the Under 19 team to give the national side some practice by playing against them. I told the rest of the boys and they were all enthusiastic. It turned out that the coach wanted me to play in the national team! I practiced with the team. My cousin Niloufer was also in the team. I remember scoring two tries. My opportunity came when the regular Fly Half was injured. That’s how I first came to play for Sri Lanka.”

After leaving school, Fazil played for Kandy SC for 14 seasons, captaining in 2010 and 2015.  During this time Kandy won the league title on no less than 12 occasions and the knockouts 13 times. It was all about rugby for Fazil also donned the national jersey until 2017, captaining in 2015. 

“The highlight was when we won the Asian A Division title in 2013 under Yoshitha Rajapaksa. I believe my best ever performance was in the last game against Kazakhstan. I scored two tries in that game.”

Rugger is a hard game. Players get injured all the time. Indeed a considerable number hang their boots due to injury. Fazil tore three three ligaments and had to have ankle surgery in 2010 and in 2015 had to deal with a disc bulge.  

“I always trained hard, be it in the gym or on the ground. I think I owe a lot to Mothilal Jayatilleka for my training ethic. He became our trainer at Kingswood in 2003 at the time my cousin Ronnie Ibrahim was the coach. He really made a difference. I had never done weights before. All of us became fitter. Our strength and speed improved.

“And that ethic stayed with me.  A player has to watch his weight as the years go by.  I was 85kg six years ago, but now I am around 81 or 82. I always trained hard.  I was quick always.  I was skinny, around 70-75 kgs and between 2007 and 2009 I was the league’s highest try scorer.”

Fazil also credits his Ronnie for honing his skills. Apparently he had given the players the freedom to play. He think this is why Kingswood had such a successful run in the early years of the millennium.  And then of course there was George Simpkin, the nation coach who first recognized Fazil’s potential. He remembers and acknowledges the lessons he learned. 

Well, now it is time to retire. Or is it?

For years, while playing rugby, Fazil Marija spent hardly any time in offices. He worked for Seylan Bank for three years and then was at MJ International (Pvt) Ltd and since 2010 at Mas Holdings as a Planning Executive. He is grateful for the opportunities, understanding and the time given by these organizations to enable him to focus on the game he loved and continues to love.

Fazil Marija will not be playing for Kandy or Sri Lanka anymore. He figures that having played for 14-15 years and having achieved all the goals he had set himself, he should now move on to other things.

Like family. Fazil has always been a family man. He remains devoted to his mother, who now lives with him in Polgolla. He got married in December 2015 and now spends a lot of time with his wife Yasara and their seven month old baby girl, Liyara. 

“Life has changed after I became a father. A bit busier, but more interesting. I love being home with my wife and our little girl.”

It is probably hard for rugby fans to imagine a season without the scintillating moves of Fazil Marija.  It’s easy for him, though. He leaves the field but rugby doesn’t leave him. Maybe it can’t. Fazil set up an academy of rugby in September 2017, anticipating his imminent retirement.  

“I set up the School of Rugby in an indoor stadium in Kollupitiya. It was one my coaches, Johann Taylor, who suggested that I should start something like this. In fact Johann has helped me a lot, even coming down to handle some sessions in January.  He has given me a lot of ideas.”

It’s a first of its kind in Sri Lanka, run by Fazil and three coaches, Nigel Ratwatte, Hasitha Perera and Sharya Guruge. It is in fact a rugby pre-school with kids as young as three years enrolled.

“Yes, 3-8 years of age. The philosophy is simple. We want the kids to learn to love the sport. We teach the basics but in a way that is fun for them. We play games. The kids catch and run and jump with hurdles and rings. It’s like obstacle races but with a rugby ball. It’s more fun and they do learn basic skills like ball handling, how to pick a ball and pass, how to kick and how to score a try. Most importantly by the time they play rugby in their particular school it would be a game that they love.”

There are 30 students enrolled in this school as of now. The kids as well as their parents have shown a lot of enthusiasm according to Fazil. 

What will the future hold for this rugby legend?  Well, Fazil Marija has always focused on what had to be done in the here and now.  For almost two decades it was about what he had to do to help his teams win matches. It was also about his mother and his family. Through it all, there was rugby. Right now there’s still rugby. 

The fans won’t see Fazil Marija making plays on the rugby field. In time to come, perhaps, there will be young men who in their work ethic, moves, innovation, love for the game and commitment will carry something of the Fazil Marija signature.  He’s already planting seeds. This much is clear. 

The man won’t fade away. He’s been shining too brightly for that.