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 reveals the pressures surrounding Pakistani hockey players, who according to him have very uncertain and insecure futures.
Hockey is our national game but financially it has little to offer – I believe that is one of the major reasons for its present failures. It is no doubt very disappointing considering our proud tradition.
No one is quite aware of the inner worries of a hockey player who expects to have a secure future while and after representing their national team. There is a saying, “money is not everything” but when you are representing your country on the biggest stage you should not be worried about how you are going to feed your family.
As the Pakistani team prepares for one of the biggest events in hockey, it is important to look at the aspects that plague our national game and steps that can be taken to improve the situation.
Hockey is also India’s national game, but the players there have secure jobs with handsome salaries. Few years ago India started the Indian Premier League which has completely changed the landscape of cricket in the country and has been a very successful model up until its most recent edition this year. In hockey, nowadays there are two bodies functioning in India, the Indian Hockey Federation (IHF) and Hockey India (HI). Both claim that they are running Indian hockey but as per law and according to Federation International Hockey (FIH) HI is the recognised body and IHF stands no where. FIH is still working to fix this issue.
This year, the IHF launched a hockey league named World Series Hockey (WSH) amid much fanfare; offering handsome salaries to players from around the world. The world of hockey has not seen such a lucrative venture. Nimbus Sports sponsored the mega event. The WSH attracted a lot of players from across the world, including Pakistanis, Dutch, Australian, Spanish and even Argentineans.
All the Indian players who were occupied with the Olympic qualifiers and were contracted to HI refused to be the part of it. They were a part of the WSH promotional events and even signed and collected the advance money for it. However, they later returned the money and pulled out of the league to concentrate on India’s 2012 Olympic qualifiers after negotiations with their federation.
India then qualified for the Olympics in style.
But its a totally different scenario when it comes to Pakistani hockey players, Shakeel Abbasi, Waseem Ahmed, Zeeshan Ashraf (captain of 2010 Asian Games gold-medal-winning team, a medal that came after 20 years), Rehan Butt, Imran warsi (the shared top scorer in WSH with Indian drag flicker Gujinger Singh) , Tariq Aziz, Adnan Maqsood and Mudassar Ali Khan. PHF had announced repeatedly that if a player were to compete in the WSH, he will face a ban and or heavy fines. Sure enough, the above mentioned players took part in it and were eventually fined, heavily.
The PHF then reduced their fines and even recalled some of the ‘rebel’ players back in the team, a measure taken after Pakistan’s disastrous Azlan Shah Cup campaign. The move was much needed considering the Olympics are just a month away.
Blaming players and accusing them of not being loyal and going for money over country is totally wrong. The question that needs to be asked is simple. Why would these current Pakistani players choose to be part of the WSH, fully aware of the consequences and risk losing a chance to play at the Olympics?
It is high time the government realise that the national game is heading in the wrong direction and it needs to take very serious steps, very quickly. The players should focus only on their training and performance on the pitch, the rest should not even be an afterthought.
There are players in Pakistan who have decent, permanent jobs. But they were employed a long time ago when the economic situation was not as bad with abundant openings in the workforce.
Look at Zeeshan Ashraf, he was captain of the winning team at the 2010 Asian Games but still does not have a secure job in NBP. A player like Shakeel Abbasi is on contract in SSGC. I, myself have been jobless for a year. After winning the Asian Games, I tried to get a job but was unsuccessful. Only this year, SSGC has given me a contract of Rs 25,000 only.
Is this what Zeeshan, Abbasi and I deserve after serving the country for 12 years? What parent in their right mind would encourage their child to pursue hockey?
It's not just about me or Abbasi or Zeeshan. It is worse for the junior players, our future.
Take a look at PIA. They have a good system in place; provide job security to their players and the results show – their boys wins trophies.
A young boy gives his prime time to hockey, an age when they should be in school or college. They choose to be on the ground and play for their country and are rightly justified in hoping that their future will be secure.
Instead, they are left with nothing if they get injured or are dropped from the team. The pressure of performing constantly while at the same time worrying about so many other things gets to players. A lot of players who are dropped are forced to use 'back end' channels to make their way back into the team.
In the past, things were simple; the economy still better. Players had white-collar jobs in PIA, NBP, Customs and other departments. There was a lot of school and college hockey being played, which resulted in the perfect nurseries that provided players to our national team. No one really bothered about setting up the infrastructure, instead we were caught up in celebrating our glory days.
Only Waseem, Rehan and Mudassar have permanent jobs in WAPDA, all other players are on a contract or jobless.
Hockey is our bread and butter that is why I chose to play the league in Holland.
Even after playing for my country for 12 years I really shouldn’t be running around looking for opportunities that will improve my financial situation.
It is no wonder then that the players make the decisions that they make. Nevertheless, there’s the hope that a good performance in London will turn things around.