What is the Pakistani hockey player really worth?
This article was originally published on August 5, 2015
Pakistan hockey. It is not unusual to talk about it in the past tense now.
World Cup winners, Olympics giants; the kings of hockey. The way things have turned out, all of it seems like a myth.
It is very easy to start blaming the individuals running the hockey federation for Pakistan's predicament but there are many reasons for the game's decline. The behaviour of the government towards the national sport tops that list.
Financial issues have always dogged the national federation. And with the passage of time it demanded an increase in funding from the government which I think is logical considering how elite sports bodies function throughout the world and the economics behind it. But you will be surprised to hear that the Pakistan Hockey Federation (PHF) does not even own a single stadium, let alone generate enough revenue to support itself.
A top-class facility with a state-of-the-art training centre should have been a given. Basic accommodation in or around this complex could have saved thousands on hotel expenditures. But the government quite simply lacks the vision to undertake such a project and to expect the PHF to lead on this front is a foregone conclusion.
As things stand, it is clear the government and PHF have trust issues as highlighted by the decision to audit the federations accounts. According to some reports the previous government had released 1.2 billion rupees to the federation in 2009. Olympian Samiullah was right in saying that “any sport in the country could have been boosted with money like that.”
If the reports are accurate, and we can only judge when the audit is complete, then there is a massive lack of planning and misuse of money. The PHF has been knocking all doors with the hopes of getting funded or sponsors but they have struggled. It is a natural outcome of the federation not being transparent in its financial dealings and the public and private sectors not seeing any results.
At the end of the day, like so many other national sports bodies around the world, it has to sustain itself. And that can only come if competent people are in place.
In the tenure of PHF president General Aziz Khan ( 2000-05 ) and secretary Brigadier Musaratullah Khan (2000–06) there was a proper marketing team functioning of PHF. Headed by Sardar Naveed Haider Khan it did a great job. I have no hesitation in saying this.
The ‘funding’ issue by no means a new development. But my question is what has the federation done on its part to resolve it? Why have they only relied on the government for funds when clearly it to has been dictated by politics?
Currently, there is a marketing department only in papers and shockingly the official website of the hockey federation is down most of the time if not completely offline. To the common man, that is the most visible indicator that funds given by the government, if any, have gone down the drain. The finance department is clearly also a figment of the imagination.
What was Pakistan doing in the past that cannot be replicated now? We are well beyond the ‘Astroturf’ argument. Nothing in life stays as it is and much like the other aspects of it, sport too goes through an evolution. The challenge for sport teams, much like everything else, is to adapt and the process should be taken as such. Unfortunately, for the longest time we used the change in playing surfaces as an excuse for whenever we lost.
We fell off the pace so much that we now rank 10th in the world, sandwiched between Korea and Spain. Teams like Belgium, Argentina and New Zealand have left us in their trails.
The ‘naan-cholay’ diet
The incompetency of the federations and even the government officials who are responsible for the demise of the national sport ultimately trickles down and it is the players who suffer the most.
When Pakistan failed to qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics, the first such instance and coming straight after the embarrassment of not qualifying for the World Cup in 2014, the national captain, Mohammad Imran, finally broke his silence.
Imran's outburst came after the PHF and coaching staff did not waste a single minute in blaming the players for Pakistan's humiliation.
“Naan Cholay [bread and chick peas] eaters cannot achieve the desired results and no one should have expected victory in the Hockey World League semi-finals,” Imran said upon his return from the Olympics qualifying tournament in Belgium.
While part of Imran's statement was to be taken literally, the Pakistan captain was also highlighting the total lack of professionalism in handling the affairs of hockey in the country. Unfortunately, many experts in the country missed the point.
But it's not just hockey, all sports in the country have suffered due to a lack of professionals in the national federations. Many athletes have gone on record to reveal that they never received a single penny of the amount announced as a reward by the government for their achievements.
Victories and victorious athletes have only been used as photo ops by the government and political parties.
The system has failed, they say. In reality, there is no system.
Now, apart from hockey not being played in schools, there is no domestic calendar and no coaching standard. But we should not ignore the condition of our players.
What Imran said last month is the bitter truth. He should have said that a long time ago.
In the national training camps, considering the standard of the food that is offered, our green-shirted warriors should be saluted for even their losses.
There is no professional physiotherapist, physical trainer, nutritionist, video analyst and goalkeeper trainer with the team. There is one doctor with the team but I never understood his role.
This is the situation at the national level, so you can only imagine how bad it will be at the lower levels.
Despite of all of this, they still manage to bring home a few medals. The silver medal in Asian Games and Asian Champions Trophy 2014 are examples. For me these players are the real heroes.
What's in a diet?
Proper nutrition plays an important role in any sport and now there's a whole science to how athletes prepare.
All the other hockey nations are investing in their infrastructure by providing their players the best facilities and bringing in professional coaches, trainers, physiotherapists and nutritionists. In our training camps, Rooh Afza and dates serve as ‘energy boosters’. At breakfast, the players get a vitamin and I think that's where the doctor's role ends. Sitting in our homes, then, we expect are players to fly on the field.
I understand that our players have different eating habits as most of them come from rural areas. Even the ones from the cities, though, prefer to have traditional food. Even when the team is abroad Pakistani food is arranged especially for the players. No heed is paid to the ingredients of the food and how they would hinder in the recovery process of players.
There were players like the legendary Sohail Abbas who always set an example for the rest of us. He used to buy his own supplements and follow a plan for fastest recovery and strength. I have seen players just appearing for dinner in the training camps because if they skip they are fined. They then proceed to go out and have their own dinner.
So in effect, the management creates a situation for the player where they don't have too many choices. Sohail Abbas did what he did because he educated himself and played under professional in foreign leagues.
The PHF organised lectures on nutrition on occasion but where are the professionals to implement what is being taught?
Every time when we get a foreign coach, the priority shifts to fitness and diet. There's marked difference in the fitness levels of players under foreign coaches.
There is a dire need to understand how sport works and the complexities around it. In Pakistan, neither the game is valued nor the player.
What is a Pakistani hockey player worth?
When it comes to appreciating the efforts of our hockey players, there should be no doubt.
Our players get Rs 15,000 rupees as a daily allowance on foreign tours and it is a fact that they haven't received it on many tours in the past. Yet, they continue to fight for the country. So we should not doubt their love for the sport and country.
We must keep in mind that it is not only the players who look towards the PHF, but the lives of their families are also put on hold due a to lack of steady income.
Players who do have jobs do not earn anything close to what international stars do which makes daily allowances a very important part of their finances.
During training camps, the players get 1000 rupees and that too isn't a given. Thanks to some international leagues where Pakistani players are still in demand, there is a source of income. But that opportunity only comes when you've played for your national team. What about the countless guys playing domestically?
Can the players really be blamed if they choose to play abroad and skip national camps?
Tired and hopeless, the players have seen officials getting richer by the day and expected to remain silent. When they speak out, they are reminded about their contract with the federation.
But the PHF must understand that it exists because of the players not the other way around.
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 2003/2004 Champions Trophy bronze medal, 2005 Rabo Trophy, 2006 Commonwealth Games silver medal and the 2010 Asian Games gold medal with Pakistan. He has 230 international caps and represented Pakistan at two Olympic Games and three World Cups.