Salman Akbar is a veteran goal-keeper who made his debut for Pakistan in 2001. Termed by Olympian Shahid Ali Khan as one of the most hard-working players in the game, Akbar has won the 2005 Rabo Trophy and the 2010 Asian Games gold medal with Pakistan. He was adjudged the ‘best keeper’ in both events. Here, he reviews Pakistan’s performance at the 2012 Champions Trophy where the Greenshirts clinched the bronze medal.
I have been playing league hockey in the Netherlands for the last five years. With two Olympic gold medals, three World Cup titles and a host of other championship wins, there is no doubt that the system here is top notch. The professionalism, as everyone knows, is not limited to hockey alone. Johan Cruyff, Dennis Bergkamp, Patrick Kluivert and now Robin van Persie are household names not only in Europe but also Pakistan.
Needless to say the whole business of sports is taken seriously here, so much so that it falls within the Ministry of Health and Welfare. The Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sports as it is called, the three seen as directly proportional to one another. For the Dutch, sports are a tool for social betterment and as such given its due importance right from the foundational level. It is something Pakistan would do well to adopt, keeping in mind the positive impact of sports on society.
It is quite evident from what has happened in the past that this issue, however, does not figure in our national agenda. The country goes to the historic polls on May 11, and what is clear from the numerous jalsas is that sports – and even health – does not feature very high in their list of priorities. True, education, economy and security warrant a little bit extra but if sports can’t be part of politics, politics should also not be a part of sports.
Pakistan has a Sports Ministry, better known as the Pakistan Sports Board (PSB). After the devolution of the ministry in 2011, the administrative control of the PSB was transferred to Ministry of Inter-Provincial Coordination. Commenting on the development in a local newspaper, renowned sports administrator and analyst Zakir Hussain Syed said, “Devolution of sports to provinces has been nothing less than great farce.”
The ongoing fight between PSB and Pakistan Olympic Association is the biggest example of politics in play in sports. And it is shameful for Pakistan that International Olympic Commission (IOC) is contemplating banning the country from the Olympics for this reason.So as things stand there is no clear policy, no one is sure who is in charge, the national federations are running on political appointments by men without any clear goals and understanding of sports. It is part of the annual budget which is nothing more than a handout.
The impact of all of this eventually trickles down to the athlete (read below). Those who make it are more likely than not self-made. Sprint queen Naseem Hamid and snooker champion Muhammad Asif are great examples of individual determination and achievement with virtually no support. As it was with their cases, political parties have used moments of glory for photo ops and to gain mileage. They offer cash rewards to the athletes and absolve themselves of any further responsibilities. Why not make it part of their so-called ‘manifestoes? After all, Pakistan is famous throughout the world because of its sporting achievements and in times like these, perhaps the only positive ‘news’ from the country.
Pakistan has a very rich sports history. There was a time when we were world champions of cricket, hockey, snooker and squash. Currently, it is a struggle largely due to bad governance. Therefore, elimination of political influence from sports is as important as improving the health, education and various other sectors. Team selections and other internal matters should be monitored carefully and the system needs to be overhauled. The ongoing fight between PSB and Pakistan Olympic Association is the biggest example of politics in play in sports. And it is shameful for Pakistan that International Olympic Commission (IOC) is contemplating banning the country from the Olympics for this reason. Numerous sports heads in the country are related to politics in some way or the other. Professionals should be appointed instead, people who only think and work for the betterment of sports and not to save themselves for the next tenure.
The state of hockey
The national hockey federation in the Netherlands, Koninklijke Nederlandse Hockey Bond (KNHB), gets its funds from the National Olympic Committee (NOC). This committee focuses on sports which are realistic medal hopes at the Olympics. KNHB oversees all hockey matters and has put in place an excellent domestic structure in the shape of league hockey. The great thing about league hockey is that it is not only limited for the top players but boys and girls and as young as 12 too, train and come up from this league. The national hockey players play for their respective clubs in the league thus making the job of scouting and picking players for the national team simple. Even if there is no international event, the core group of national team players still trains together once a week.
Compare that to the system in Pakistan where there is no domestic hockey at all. All the national players train together only when a camp is set up before an international event, mostly a month before it. The National Champion Ship is held annually but last for only 2-3 weeks and it is not something that can be used effectively to select a national squad from.
Hockey in schools is virtually dead, club hockey is not exactly in great health either and there is a shortage of funds. The Pakistan Hockey Federation (PHF) can perhaps look towards India for inspiration. The Hockey India League, which features big international names alongside local talent and offers them great financial rewards, will breed quality players in the years to come.
Why can’t Pakistan organize something similar but maybe not as grand? Where is the vision? Instead, the POA and PSB are involved in a tussle; there is no research and innovation in sports and no investment. Pakistan successfully hosted China for a short series, I’m sure it can manage a few other international teams as well.
It may sound clichéd but we do have enormous potential however, the will and financial support is missing. People like Nur Khan and Farooq Umar are also missing from top posts.
We will hopefully turn a corner on May 11, and my sincere hope is that the party that can really bring about positive change wins. I request the leaders to give due consideration to sports.
The trickle down effect: Muhammad Akhtar's story By Hassan Cheema
In January of this year, Aslam Rodha – one of the greatest men in Pakistani sporting history – passed away. His death caused few ripples in the Pakistani media-verse, or in the minds of the general Pakistani public. Rodha had served the country with distinction – from being an international player to the single best polisher of diamonds in the country. More than fifty students of his would go on to represent the national team, as he made the small town of Gojra famous throughout Pakistan. Gojra became synonymous with one of the few things that Pakistanis were proud of; before it became synonymous with one of the things that most Pakistanis should be most ashamed of. But I digress. Rodha’s death might make one of the few great factories of Pakistani sport redundant. Yet it also showed why Pakistani sport has fallen from its not-that-great peak.
Compare the situation with South Africa. It is a country where the importance of sport is far greater than in most countries – particularly when compared to the academic-obsessed South Asian nations. The dozen or so best schools in the country have the sort of facilities that top Pakistani clubs – if not national teams – would kill for. In addition, much like Rodha in Gojra, the coaches for these high school students are former professionals. It is a combination of these factors due to which South Africa continue to be a regular force in most sports the populace is interested in – despite the messed up social history and economic inequality. While I was in South Africa one of the Super Sport channels was broadcasting school rugby. As a Pakistani, to have school sports being shown on national television, and being covered and discussed by elite journalists, seemed refreshingly odd to me.
The story of Muhammad Akhtar, who I met in Johannesburg, put the system of both countries in perspective. On first glance he is the typical Pakistani emigrant: a bearded gutka-chewer working in a non-technical job. But Akhtar is more than that: he is a typical product of Pakistan’s sports system. He learned to play hockey at Government High School Ugoki under the tutelage of his “PT-master.” Unlike the youngsters in South Africa, his coaching wasn’t done by a professional, nor were his conditions built to encourage his passion. Although, he did have the good fortune of being born in district Sialkot, so when he did start to show talent in his field-of-choice he was provided free equipment by the sports manufacturers from the city. He underlines this as one of the main reasons Sialkot produces more hockey and cricket players than other cities of similar size. His passion for hockey increased as his teenage years went by, and he dreamed of playing for Pakistan – he was part of perhaps the final generation that saw Pakistan rule the roost in hockey.
The closest he would get to play for the national team would be the 2001 tour of Pakistan by the England Junior team when Akhtar started for the Pakistan Junior team, playing with the likes of Dilawar Hussain. A typical right half – reliant on his dribbling and low centre of gravity – he would go on to play hockey at the highest domestic level playing for the Police and Customs teams.
But in 2004, tired of the season-long contracts offered by the departments, he searched for financial security. And like millions of Pakistanis before him, the most obvious way he could think of was to migrate elsewhere. In 2004, he packed his bags and came over to Johannesburg for a life of mindless work. His old life still continued to be a part of him, though. After not playing hockey for the first few months, a series of chance meetings and a desire to do the one thing that he had dedicated the greatest years of his life to, led him to start playing club hockey in Gauteng.
He was also offered the chance to coach academies and schools, but due to personal and financial reasons, he could never take up those offers. His hockey career finished in 2006, when he was given the South African treatment – beaten up by a group of local hoodlums who had decided to rob him. The injuries sustained from that attack meant that he could never play competitive hockey again.
Akhtar still lives in Jo’burg, and runs a clothes shop in the city-centre. He still plays hockey and cricket with other Pakistanis on his day off. He says he doesn’t regret anything in the life he has lived but as he tells the stories of his glory days there is pride and disappointment in his voice; now aware of the future that would follow. Like most Pakistanis, he loves a name-drop, particularly when it relates to those he impressed; he visibly swelled with pride when he told me of the fact that Wasim Feroz used to call him chhota jadugar (little magician), due to his dribbling skills and his stature. But all these names belong to his past now. His present belongs to his young family and what counts for social life in one of the most dangerous cities in the world.
In another lifetime, in a better Pakistan, a life spent focusing on his passion might have led him to be a modern-day Aslam Rodha. But he, like many in his generation – those who made it, and those who didn’t – the time given to hockey became a forgotten past in search of financial security. As the talent pool shrinks and the quality of coaching decreases, we sit back and wonder why Pakistan hockey continues to be in interminable decline. It really isn’t that difficult a question to answer if we are willing to scratch the surface.