Salman Akbar is a veteran goal-keeper who made his debut for Pakistan’s hockey team 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 overall performance at the London Olympics and highlights the problems plaguing Pakistan hockey.
Pakistan’s seventh-place finish at the London Olympics is being hailed as an improvement (of one position) from the team’s last stint at the Beijing Games four years ago. Well, if that’s our scale of measuring success, it will take Pakistan another 16 years to reach the podium.
Despite making a decent start to the tournament (against Spain), Pakistan failed to capitalise. The match against hosts Great Britain highlighted our poor performance. Against South Africa, we leaked four goals but there was some consolation in our 5-4 win as we managed to keep our semi-final hopes alive. In the most important match of the tournament (against Australia) and for Pakistan hockey, we managed to record our worst-ever defeat in the history of the Games.
Consolation victory In the last match against South Korea, Pakistan played a much better and controlled game. The pace Pakistan showed was one of the reasons for success as we beat a higher-ranked team for the first time in the tournament. It was good to see that we only gave away one penalty corner.
The two goals scored by Korea could have been avoided had the defence been in a good position to clear the ball on time. After Korea’s first goal, the reply of Pakistan was very good and we finally saw our vice-captain Waqas Shareef score his first (and last) goal of the tournament. Choosing Muhammad Imran for the first shot on penalty corner gave Pakistan the winning goal.
While Pakistan’s defence was struggling in the beginning they gained confidence with the passage of goalless periods and minimised their errors. Our strikers still missed some open chances, particularly one from Rehan Butt.
Coaching conundrum Overall, Pakistan’s performance at the Games remained poor. For me, the biggest reason for our failure was the lack of planning from the coaches. From a clear lack of tactics for the opponents’ game to being clueless about a good starting eleven to timely substitutions, the coaches failed to deliver on the promises they made before leaving for London. One of these claims was an apparent improvement in the team’s attacks, especially in terms of missed chances, which the coaching staff claimed to have worked hard on during the training camps. Once the team took the field, it was clear how much “work” had been done to overcome these problems.
Only seven field goals is clear indication of the performance of our strikers, some of whom ended the campaign without scoring a single goal! Six of the 12 goals scored by Pakistan were from penalty corners. Even in PCs, the conversion rate was unimpressive and the use of indirect variation was seen only once, which was appalling given the stature of the tournament. It was good to see that when Muhammad Imran was given two penalty corner opportunities, he converted from both. Goalkeeper Imran Shah had a nightmare under the bars. He failed to impress in any of the matches and this puts a question-mark on the role of goalkeeping coach Shahid Ali Khan. Midfield was the only area where Pakistan did well and it was mainly down to the excellent leadership of Waseem Ahmed.
Time to face harsh realities Barely a day after Pakistan’s stint at London ended, a statement from Pakistan’s chef de mission left me dumbfounded. He has called for cuts in hockey funds and slammed the lack of funding for other sports. While I agree that other sports desperately need attention and we must support all athletes, I don’t think taking away funds from hockey will do any good. It is our national game, which is itself reeling from lack of funding. As a player, I have always heard from every PHF set-up I have worked under in the last 15 years that they are struggling to get financial support from the government and there is a lack of sponsorship to promote the game and bring it to international standards.
It is important to realise that every sport has become scientific now. Athletes, from all fields, must be given the best possible facilities.
It is really sad to know that athletes can’t even buy proper kits. They don’t even have the money to maintain a proper, healthy diet. How will an athlete perform at the best of his abilities under such circumstances? It is easy to make so much noise when the athletes don’t bag medals.
According to our respected Chef de Mission Aqil Shah, “The PHF received a funding of Rs500 million from the government while assistance for other federations was minimal. Despite getting so much money, we failed to win a medal.” If hockey receives a big chunk of the funding and fails to deliver the results then it must be revealed where the funds are actually going. As far as I know, they can do a lot more to facilitate the players and the game of hockey.
Pakistan versus India mind-block As Pakistan ended the Games on a winning note, albeit without a medal, our coach didn’t miss the opportunity to point out that we finished better with neighbours India. For me, this was the most damaging statement to come out of the Pakistan camp. We need to move beyond this Pakistan-India mentality.
For God’s sake, stop wasting everyone’s time and stop trying to fool the nation! You need to be brave enough to admit that as a coach, you have failed to deliver at the Olympics. Before leaving for London and even during the pre-tournament preparations, our coach had promised a podium finish. He said the team had worked hard on overcoming their weaknesses and building mental toughness. The performance was there for everyone to see. You cannot fool the nation anymore.
The victory that they still boast of came two years ago and was under the Dutch coach Michel Van Huevel. Michel worked very hard on building the team and created a good atmosphere where the players flourished.
The coach also tried to play down the team’s failure by saying that we were the best Asian side. Well, you were playing at the Olympics, not defending the Asian title. Finishing seventh doesn’t prove our continental supremacy. In fact, it is a shame for the continent that its best rank at the world’s biggest stage was seventh and had only two other teams’ representation.
It is very easy to say that the players failed. I admit, they didn’t do well but then what was the role of the coach? The on-field performance was a fair reflection of the work done during the training camps and the pre-game plans. Laying all blame on the players is not the answer to finishing seventh. Is this the way to handle our failures? No. Instead of showing some courage and admitting that you failed, you are happy to say that you did better than India. This attitude reeks of a lack of professionalism. We need to get over with it. We mustn’t teach our youth that beating India is the biggest achievement. It may have been the case in earlier decades but not anymore. This is 2012 and we need to come out of this complex. There are some serious problems in our country and we need to focus on fixing them. Instead of getting such statements out of the officials, heads of the country and media should seek their accountability.