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 talks about Pakistan's performance at the Olympics, what the reasons were behind the poor show and how the team can improve.
The present Pakistan Hockey Federation (PHF) management took charge just a few weeks before the 2008 Beijing Olympics in which Pakistan had slumped to its lowest-ever ranking (8th) at the Games. The change of guard at the PHF came about after months of wrangling from former Olympians and greats like Islahuddin, Shehnaz Sheikh and Sami Ullah. They were further baffled when the new setup took over.
Immediately after taking charge, the new management, under Qasim Zia, set as its target the 2010 Asian Games. It turned out to be a masterstroke as Pakistan achieved the goal by beating Malaysia 2-0 in the final at Guangzhou and were crowned Asian champions after a gap of 20 years. That goal-medal-winning performance gave Pakistan a direct ticket to the 2012 London Olympics. Along the way, however, the PHF faced serious flak as Pakistan finished at the bottom of the table at the 2010 World Cup in India. This had created a serious storm for the federation once again, with former players rallying for an overhaul in the setup. But the PHF handled it well, sticking to their guns and remaining focused on the Asian Games. Even after the whole team had retired after finishing 12th in the World Cup, and a serious meeting with the then Minister for Sport Aijaz Jhakrani, the present setup was allowed to continue at the behest of the minister.
Following this, the PHF began its hunt for a coach and finally selected Michel Van den Heuvel from the Netherlands, initially only until the Asian Games. Michel put his hand up for the job even when many other big names were reluctant to come to Pakistan due to security reasons. But the Dutch coach took it as a challenge and worked very hard with the team – he was a thorough professional.
Michel had as his support Manzoor (Jr) as manager, Ajmal Khan as an assistant coach and Ahmed Alam as goalkeeping coach to start off with. Khawaja Junaid replaced Manzoor (Jr) before the Asian games and Shahid Ali Khan replaced Alam after the Asian games. There is no doubt that the confidence instilled in the Pakistan team by Michel and the positive atmosphere that he created were the biggest reasons for our success in Guangzhou. He particularly worked on the mental aspect of the game and conditioned us very well. Michel was such a positive person and always enjoyed his time in Pakistan. I still remember his words after we lost our pool match against India in the Asian games. He said, "We are not here to beat India, we are here to win the gold." And sure enough his belief rubbed off on all of us.
Hockey received a new lease of life in Pakistan after the Greenshirts won the Asian Games. It seemed that once again the national game would inspire the nation and reach the same heights as it did in the 70's and 80's. It was great time for Pakistan hockey and on top of everything, the PHF had achieved its target. So the overall wave of joy and confidence had swept PHF house and the players alike. Following that, Pakistan did well in the Azlan Shah Cup, its European tour, the Asian Champion's Trophy and even on its tour to Australia.
It was all too good to last, however, as what ensued created a lot of misunderstanding and broke the bond between the PHF and the players. Zeeshan Ashraf who was the captain of the gold medal winning team was sidelined. He had repeatedly told the PHF that he wanted to take a break to give a chance to the up-and-coming juniors but would be available when his services were required for big events like the Olympics or Champions Trophy. The way PHF handled this case and hurt the dignity of the captain who brought gold after 20 years was not a great message to send to the rest of the players and in fact the whole of the hockey fraternity. I can tell you that Zeeshan Ashraf"s captaincy had a great influence in Pakistan's success at the Asian Games and the way he kept everyone together was simply the best you could ask of a leader. He was the last solid defender and after him Pakistan has been struggling a great deal at the back. After Zeeshan Ashraf, Muhammad Imran, Ashraf's deputy, got the arm band.
There was a lot of chopping and changing even after that. In Asian Champion's trophy the experienced Sohail Abbas, Rehan Butt and Muhammad Zubair were dropped. There was a change at the top as well and Shakeel Abbasi was made captain for the tour of Australia. Abbasi returned home after leading the side to a 4-nation title, beating Australia in the final. It was no doubt an appreciable victory but for some odd reason Muhammad Imran once again took charge of the side for the Champions Trophy and remained at the helm until the Pakistan-China series.
The national championship was held in February 2012 in Karachi and even after good performances from Muhammad Imran, Waseem Ahmad and I, the three of us were dropped from the Olympics squad. Shakeel Abbasi, Rehan Butt and Waseem Ahmed then went to take part in WSH (World Series Hockey ) in India knowing fully well the PHF’s stance on it. They were duly suspended and heavily fined for taking part in the unsanctioned league.
Just four months before the London Olympics, Michel was sacked after falling victim to internal, dirty politics mostly played by his local support staff. This was the last nail in the coffin. The new team management was Akhtar Rasool (manager), Khawaja Junaid (coach), Ajmal Khan (assistant coach) and Shahid Ali Khan remained goalkeeping coach.
With the new management Pakistan participated in the Azlan Shah cup and finished last. The PHF reacted by recalling 'rebels' Shakeel Abbasi, Waseem Ahmad and Rehan Butt back into the fold after fining them heavily. But these players couldn't join the team on the last and the most important European tour before the Olympics in which Pakistan went in with only 15 players. Because it was a very late injection, the players failed to get the visa on time.
This was Pakistan’s preparation for the biggest sporting event in the world. We had a good 19 months to prepare for London Olympics, but in this period the PHF was constantly fumbling, unsure of its plan and what team to send to the Games. Few weeks before the event, Abbasi, Rehan and Waseem were included in the team for the Olympics. Waseem and Abbasi joined the team after six months and Rehan joined the team after a year. If the PHF had planned in advance, these things would never have happened.
After the last match of the Olympics, Waseem Ahmed announced his retirement. Waseem Ahmed has had a great career and served the country in 395 matches, and was part of three Olympic campaigns. He made his debut in the 1996 Chennai Champions Trophy where Pakistan finished second. Waseem also got the captain's band in 2004 Champions Trophy in Lahore and in the Pakistan-India series the same year. He was the most consistent performer I have ever seen. Pakistan will definitely miss his services and to it will be a while until his shoes are filled. He should be given a proper farewell by the federation instead of just accepting his retirement decision and moving on.
In London, nine Pakistani players made their first Olympic appearance. I don't agree that these were 'junior players' by any stretch. Out of the nine only Rizwan (Jr) joined the team less than a year ago while the rest have been part of the squad for a good two to three years. So claims of Pakistan going in with an inexperienced side are not true. From the 16 who were in London, I think Muhammad Rashid, Muhammad Irfan and Rizwan (Jr) are the players who will have a long career with Pakistan and as they get more experience, the world will see them shine. There are a few boys from the Pakistan junior team who should also rise to top-level.
Goal keeping is a big worry as was evident in London. It is a very important job and the performance of that one man shapes and influences the performance of the entire team. Pakistan always produced great goalkeepers. Shahid Ali Khan was the best in his time and after that Mansoor Ahmed continued the show. Pakistan still has a bunch of talented keepers, but they need to be trained well. In London, the performance of Imran Shah was well below average, otherwise Pakistan may have finished in the top four. One of the reasons for this was lack of proper training for Shah. Having a goal-keeping coach for the sake of filling up the support staff numbers will obviously get you no where.
A professional and qualified goal-keeping trainer who is up to speed with the modern game and is aware of the mental aspect of this job is the need of the hour. In our training camps goalkeepers also have to participate in all the physical sessions with the rest of the boys which is totally useless as goalkeepers do not really need to run up and down the pitch. Yes, they require physical fitness but just basic The rest comes from natural skill and hours of standing under the bars. Goalkeeping trainer Shahid Ali Khan, with the senior team and Ahmed Alam with the junior team are responsible for the failure in this department.
They are not aware of the modern techniques so they force keepers to adopt the old styles which are now irrelevant. It is about agility and reflexes, sharpening hand-eye coordination and anticipation. Making keepers run for two hours and draining them with workouts is not the ideal way to go. How you can expect a goal keeper to give his best in the training camp after he has wasted all his energy? Add to that the unnecessary pressure created by the coaches on the goalkeepers which eventually leaves them tense and always thinking about conceding goals. Despite all of this, the talent is there and Mazhar Abbas from the junior team has great potential provided he gets proper coaching. Otherwise he too, will be wasted. The importance and role of the goalkeeper must be fully understood and nurtured because without a doubt he can make or break a game.
Lastly and perhaps most essentially we need to understand that for a player it takes a lot of mental energy to work with a coach and develop a good relationship with him which eventually helps the overall cause of the team. Changing coaches after every few months or after every failure is not the solution. All the coaches in the world work with their teams for two to four years and often times the results take time to show. The coaches, firstly, should be thorough professionals and secondly, they should be given a proper run. We need to understand that if someone was a great player in his time, there is no guarantee that he will also make a great coach.
Team combination should not be changed every few months either as it takes a long time to build a solid unit. A player should not be judged by one match or tournament alone. We need to have a long term plan to regain our lost glory. We have to do away with personal likes and dislikes.
We are not that bad. We can be the best by being consistent. We have to accept that this is the time for us to learn from other teams instead of insisting that our way is still the best. It was but it's not anymore. As a nation we have to show patience as it cannot be done over night. We have to give players a professional atmosphere, coaching and financial support which will allow them to display their true qualities when representing their country.
I am proud to be Pakistani as it's my identity and has given me so much. It is always a proud moment to wear a green shirt with the flag on the left side over our hearts. We all should say to ourselves on this 65th birth day of Pakistan that no matter in which department or on which position we are working we will do our jobs with full honesty. Let’s all get together and start thinking green. Pakistan Zindabad!