“Naan cholay [bread and chickpeas] eaters cannot achieve the desired results and no one should have expected victory in the Hockey World League semi-finals,” lashed out Mohammad Imran, Pakistan’s hockey team skipper after the team failed to qualify for the Olympics for the first time in their rich 67-year hockey history.

Although the literal aspect of his comment was taken to the cleaners on social forums where people argued about the nutritional content of the food to the expected menu for a national team, what he actually pointed to was the lack of professionalism at every level encountered by the team. The bottom line is that lack of funds, financial insecurity, modern facilities and training along with not being able to generate and groom talent have all contributed to the deterioration and downfall of our national game.

Gone are the days when players would go out on the field or climb into rings to give their hundred per cent out of passion for a sport or for sheer patriotism and love for their country. With sports coming up to central stage and being seen as a way for maintaining peace and prosperity, it became obligatory for all countwries and their people with the best interests of their nations at heart to invest heavily in this healthy activity. It might, however, be debated whether the influx of the money made the games more competitive or was it the improving sports standards that brought in more followers and hence sponsoring opportunities.

Look at a sportsperson’s kit and you’ll find logos and brand names. He or she is a walking, talking advertisement, and for a reason

Regardless of how this occurred the fact remains that since sports became a marketing and advertising hub, overall standards and playing skills improved, resulting in turning sports and games into cut-throat professions where money and privileges mattered the most.

These days the role of sponsors is crucial in motivating players and teams to participate whole heartedly. This is especially true when athletes from under-developed and developing countries face their counterparts from the developed countries who invest heavily in their games and athletes regardless of the popularity of the game in that specific country.

Sport gets so much attention that it cannot be played in isolation; it’s a glamour industry. We live in an era where a racing car may have a dozen or more sponsors. Sportspersons sign on deals to become brand ambassadors. Sometimes a company signs on several brand ambassadors for just one product. You may even see a sponsor’s name prefixed with the ‘best catch’ or the ‘biggest six’ award in a cricket match. And when you do, please spare a thought for those individuals who are striving to make a name for themselves locally in games such as badminton, tennis, table-tennis, swimming, volleyball or even football for that matter.

Just think how small our hockey players, who don the green colour with pride, must have felt when Pakistan Hockey Federation (PHF) wrapped up a training camp due to lack of funds. To add insult to injury arch-rivals India offered to bail them out. Hockey besides being the national sport of Pakistan has a history of laurels including World Cups, Champions Trophies and Olympic medals with a list of the best players ever to have played the sport. No wonder we won’t be able to make it to Rio in 2016. The mindset of a player and his insight over his future would have nothing positive to look forward to with the PHF repeatedly making announcements about lack of funding and their inability to conduct practice sessions or even send the national team to an international tournament.

They were seen asking Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) for a bailout to send their national team to Belgium for the Olympics qualifiers. It was a great gesture when around one year ago the Governor of Sindh Dr Ishratul Ibad and business tycoon Malik Riaz announced hefty donations and reward money for the team. The team made it to the Champions Trophy in India and thanks to the format of the tournament ended as runners-up there. But again consider what a professional sportsman in Pakistan would be thinking in this scenario. One of the prime reasons for our team not being able to make it to Rio for the first time ever have to be the insecurity and lack of continued financial support for the hockey team.

Recently, another Pakistani sportswoman Noreena Shams was sponsored by singer Ali Zafar to participate in the Asian Squash Tournament. No wonder a magnanimous gesture on Ali Zafar’s part, but where are the authorities, government support or the sponsors here?

The two tennis stars Aqeel Khan and Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi represented Pakistan in the Davis Cup, the latter breaking into the top 10 in the ATP doubles ranking and making a name for himself and his country at many platforms. Both the stars have gone on record sharing their disappointment about the unavailability of any substantial sponsors, especially for young and budding players.

Aqeel Khan is a prime example of talent going to waste even though he showed lot of promise while breaking into the ATP top 350 singles ranking. But he could not sustain or improve on it. Lack of exposure pulled him back at international tournaments primarily due to lack of financial support.

We live in an era where a racing car may have a dozen or more sponsors. Sportspersons sign on deals to become brand ambassadors. Sometimes a company signs on several brand ambassadors for just one product. You may even see a sponsor’s name prefixed with the ‘best catch’ or the ‘biggest six’ award in a cricket match.

Due to drought of substantial sponsorships our budding athletes miss out on even the basics. For instance, just recently a local English news channel aired a report about the roof of the Pakistan Sports Board center dripping while boxers trained underneath. An adjacent track for warm-up athletic exercises and training sessions there was also filled with rain water.

When sportsmen realise that there are no incentives for performing well they don’t excel. But there have also been instances where a player realises his or her worth to switch loyalties. Some sell their talent to international leagues or international domestic circuits offering foreign exchange for playing as an overseas player.

The solution lies in different federations tapping into the corporate world for sponsors. Sponsors should move in to provide modern facilities and equipment, organise tournaments at different levels while focusing on unveiling the hidden talents of sportspersons.


Twitter: @Ali_Shahid82

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, August 16th, 2015

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