At the recently concluded Sultan Azlan Shah Cup hockey tournament in Ipoh, Malaysia, India stood on the victory stand with bronze medal while former three times champion Pakistan gave a dismal performance and finished at the bottom. The Indians were coached by Australian Michael Nobb.
This was Pakistan’s worst performance ever in the history of Azlan Shah Cup which was instituted in 1983. The team suffered humiliation when, after a victory against Argentina in the opening match, they were beaten in five successive matches which were contested on the single league basis on the blue turf. Perhaps it is for the time in the cup history that Pakistan, ranked eighth in the world, lost five matches in a row. Pakistan lost to New Zealand, South Korea, Malaysia, India and Britain. Except for host Malaysia, all the other nations are London Olympic qualifiers.
The team management expressed disappointment on the performance, but at the same time it adopted the same old excuses of wasting goal scoring chances besides expressing dissatisfaction over certain decisions of umpires as well as the use of blue turf. However, as far as the blue turf is concerned, the Pakistan team reached the venue about a week before the commencement of the tournament. They had had enough practice and had won the opening match against Argentina on the same turf. So the new blue turf cannot be blamed as one of the reasons for this abject failure.
After its return from Malaysia, Pakistan undertook a 10-day three-nation European tour for team building prior to the Olympic Games. The green shirts first lost to Belgium, but then beat Germany. However, Germany defeated Pakistan in the second match and the series ended in a draw. Pakistan also played against The Netherlands, which too, resulted in a draw. Even on the European tour, the tourists netted just eight goals while 14 goals were scored against them.
Impartial observers believe that the Pakistan Hockey Federation’s (PHF) decision of doing away with the services Dutch coach Michel van den Heuvel barely three months before the Olympic has made all the difference and the Ipoh debacle is no surprise. The handling of the team by management left much to be desired as well.
Under coach Heuvel, the team had recaptured the 2010 Asian Games title after a lapse of 20 years to qualify for the London Olympics. They also won silver in the 2011 edition of the Azlan Shah Cup. The foreign coach was against Pakistan’s participation in the Champions Trophy which was shifted from India to New Zealand. Pakistan, being the Asian champions, was included when the number of participating teams was increased from six to eight. The time wasn’t enough for the team to be fully prepared, but the coach had to follow the PHF’s decision. The outcome was disappointing as Pakistan stood seventh.
It is believed that a known lobby of former Olympians pressurised the PHF, headed by Qasim Zia, to remove of the Dutch coach who was willing to fulfil his commitment. This is in stark contrast when we look at the Indian hockey authorities who had also been under similar pressure by a group of former Olympians. But they stood their ground and continued with the services of the Australian coach.
The PHF, which was instrumental in hiring the Dutch coach despite opposition, reversed its decision and this is considered the major cause of our dismal performance in Malaysia. What chances we stand in the London Olympics is anybody guess.