HOCKEY: HOW GOJRA BECAME GREAT

September 30, 2018

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A coaching session under way at Gojra
A coaching session under way at Gojra

There are towns and cities in the world that are known for producing great sportsmen. Harlem in New York, for example, is known for its boxers and basketball players. There are also towns that have produced quality hockey players. Terrassa in Spain is one such town. In India, Sansarpur, a tiny village near Jallandhar, has 15 Olympic medals to its credit.

There have been many similar sports nurseries in Pakistan. Lyari in Karachi is famous for its footballers, boxers and cyclists. Post-independence Karachi also became the hub of hockey activity. Later, some other towns, including Sialkot and Sheikhupura, produced a number of quality hockey players, too.

But the city that has given the largest number of hockey players to Pakistan’s national teams is Gojra, a tiny tehsil of district Toba Tek Singh, Faisalabad division. Even the tehsil status was given to it only in 1982. Before that it was often referred to as an agricultural village.

No town or city in Pakistan has produced more international hockey players than Gojra. Eos takes a look at how it turned from a small agricultural village into a big sporting centre

Before 1947, Gojra was populated by a big number of Hindus and Sikhs who migrated to India at the time of Partition, and Muslims from India came and settled here.

The story of hockey in Gojra town (current population 650,000) is fascinating. Till the late 1960s no one from Gojra was selected for the national squad. The keen interest in hockey there can be attributed to the invaluable contribution of Government M.C. High School. Although the school was established in the early 19th century, hockey activities began on its premises only after Partition.

The physical training instructor at the school, the late M. Yaqoob belonged to one of the Muslim families that had moved to Gojra from East Punjab. He joined the institution in the early 1950s and is considered to be the father of hockey in Gojra. Though not a hockey player himself, he single-handedly raised the school team. The school’s headmaster Haji Manzoor supported him by providing hockey sticks and balls from the school fund. Still, the team at the time was no match to the established sides of the neighbouring and far more resourceful Faisalabad city. Undeterred, Yaqoob continued with his hard work.

The late Aslam Roda
The late Aslam Roda

The late 1950s also saw a couple of hockey clubs emerging, mostly comprising school students. One of them was patronised by Chaudhry Bashir, a very prominent personality of Gojra. Along with being a member of Pakistan’s National Assembly, Bashir was a transporter, who owned the Gojra Transport Company. In 1964, he established the Gojra Hockey Club and started arranging hockey tournaments there. The tournaments were national events participated in by all the major teams of the country.

Bashir financed tours of the Gojra Hockey Club team to participate in the tournaments held in different parts of the country. That’s how hockey culture took root in Gojra.

Gradually but surely, the standard of the game improved. The school and club sides became more competitive. Aslam Roda, a local player who in 1968 made his town proud by gaining national selection for the Pakistan-Japan series, achieving several firsts for Gojra, was destined to play a major role in making Gojra the great nursery of hockey that it is today. Roda devoted himself to training youngsters at the Gojra Hockey Club.

Iqbal Bali
Iqbal Bali

Then Roda was joined by Iqbal Bali, another wonderful coach at the club, who played for Pakistan as a full-back in the early 1970s, and notably in the 1973 Hockey World Cup. Bali later became an international umpire. His contribution comes second only to that of Roda’s.

Incidentally, it was in 1994 when Pakistan had those two glorious successes, the Hockey World Cup preceded by the Champions Trophy, which made the Pakistan government sanction a synthetic turf for the Gojra city. For this a proper stadium was required. Construction work was completed in the year 2000 and the turf was laid. The two big hockey clubs there have been sharing the turf. Recently, the stadium was upgraded and revamped.

With the passage of time, the sapling planted by Yaqoob grew into a strong tree. More and more Gojra boys then wore the Pakistan uniform in hockey. Goalkeeper Mohammad Aslam was the first Gojra boy to win a major title in the 1970 Asian Games in Thailand, followed by the 1971 World Cup in Barcelona, Spain.

The 1982 Hockey World Cup victory parade at Gojra with team players incuding Rasheedul Hassan on the truck
The 1982 Hockey World Cup victory parade at Gojra with team players incuding Rasheedul Hassan on the truck

Sadly, around 1975, differences developed between Roda and Bali and they parted ways. Now Bali ran the Gojra Hockey Club while Roda began coaching a new club named Gojra Sports. Later, it transformed into a healthy rivalry.

Meanwhile, the Municipal Stadium had been converted into a public park. The Gojra Club now practised the game at the Government Degree College while Gojra Sports was based at the M.C. High School.

The first Gojra player who can be called a mega star was the full-back Manzoorul Hassan. From 1973 to 1982, he remained an important part of the Pakistan defence and also scored more than 100 goals. Manzoor has the honour to be the first one from Gojra to wear the captain’s armband for the national team.

The next star was none other than Manzoor’s younger brother, Rasheedul Hassan (who played from 1979 to 1987). The world class right-half has every gold medal in his cabinet: Olympic, World Cup, Asian Games, Asia Cup, Champions Trophy and Junior World Cup. He too captained Pakistan.

Rizwana Yasmin in 2017 became the first woman from Gojra to captain the national team
Rizwana Yasmin in 2017 became the first woman from Gojra to captain the national team

From the early 1980s onwards, no Pakistan team has left the country’s shores without having representation from Gojra. The Pakistan team which finished second at the 1993 Junior World Cup had six Gojra boys getting the country’s last medal in this competition. And Pakistan’s last international title win came at the 1994 Hockey World Cup in Sydney, Australia, in which five Gojra players were members of the 16-man squad.

Incidentally, it was in 1994 when Pakistan had those two glorious successes, the Hockey World Cup preceded by the Champions Trophy, which made the Pakistan government sanction a synthetic turf for the Gojra city. For this a proper stadium was required. Construction work was completed in the year 2000 and the turf was laid. The two big hockey clubs there have been sharing the turf. Recently, the stadium was upgraded and revamped.

Manzoorul Hassan, Gojra’s  first superstar in action
Manzoorul Hassan, Gojra’s first superstar in action

In 2010, Pakistan’s former hockey captain and World Cup winner Tahir Zaman also came up with an academy. The Tahir Zaman Olympian Hockey Academy has evolved as the third centre of hockey in Gojra.

Ironically, the clubs/academies of Gojra get almost no support from the government and are being run on a self-help basis. They meet their expenses through donations by former students who are now well-off.

Women’s hockey in Pakistan has remained confined to a few big cities for a long time. Again, it was Roda who introduced hockey among the girls in this town back in 2005. The response was wonderful. Soon the girls began wearing the coveted green shirt too. At the Pakistan women team’s last international outing, no less than eight Gojra girls were part of the squad.

Roda, credited with producing around 80 senior and junior male internationals, passed away in 2013. His death was widely mourned. His former student Khawar Javaid, Pakistan’s international player in the 1990s, took on the mantle and has been running the affairs of Gojra Sports ever since. To honour the great man, the young ones’ section of the club is now operating as the Ustad Aslam Roda Academy. Bali, now 70, is still actively training youngsters at his own club

Hockey also became a source of employment for a great many players from Gojra. All the prominent teams active on the domestic scene such as PIA, Wapda, Pakistan Customs, SSGC, SNGPL, Police, Army etc., have been employing Gojra players over the past many years.

At present, no town in Pakistan, big or small, is recognised for a single sport as much as Gojra is for hockey. It is its identity and pride. Sadly, Pakistan has lost its own pride in the game.

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 30th, 2018