30 Dec 2018


The victorius Belgium hockey team
The victorius Belgium hockey team

More than Pakistan’s ending up 12th out of the 16 teams that featured in the 2018 Men’s Hockey World Cup held in Bhubaneswar this month, it was Belgium walking off with the coveted title which proved more surprising for admirers of the game.

Belgium, who were placed in Pool C with India (host), Canada and South Africa, went from strength to strength in the event. They drew with India 2-2 and beat Canada 2-1 and South Africa 5-1 to proceed to the second round where they beat Pakistan 5-0 to reach the quarter-finals. In the quarter-finals, they edged past Germany 2-1 to step into the semi-finals where England received a 6-0 thrashing from them. In the final against the Netherlands, the score remained 0-0 till the final whistle was blown, after which the match was won 3-2 by Belgium on penalty shootouts. It was their maiden World Cup, but considering the way they played, it doesn’t seem like it is going to be their last.

With regard to Belgium’s performance, Pakistan’s legendary former hockey player Olympian Shahnaz Sheikh says that, 15 years ago, Pakistan had the same grassroots level hockey they now have in Belgium. “They pumped money into their infrastructure to reach where they have reached today. Behind the victorious team there is a firm hockey network.”

Belgium’s victory at their debut Hockey World Cup pleasantly surprised many followers of the game. Can Pakistani players and administrators learn anything from it?

On what happened to the nurseries and hockey academies in Pakistan, Sheikh says that they all fell victim to a lack of vision. “Those who run national hockey in Pakistan are all political appointees, even though they may be hockey Olympians. For example, in a classroom, you have the cream and high achievers sitting in the front and the ones who get grace marks only sitting in the back benches. They are all in the same classroom, mind you, but all are at different levels of performance. Similarly, we have our Olympian hockey players whose knowledge of hockey varies from each other,” he explains.

Sheikh says that the Pakistan hockey team under his coaching in 2014 beat India and Holland at the very same ground where Belgium recently proved their mettle. “Where you may know how to play hockey, you as coach also need to know how to make others play great hockey,” he says.

“Meanwhile, Pakistan’s playing format in the recently-concluded World Cup was designed for megastars. By saying that I mean it was okay for megastars such as the ‘Flying Horse’ Samiullah of yesteryear but not for stars that make the current national team. The same technique when played by the current team has its repercussions. Hence, you go in for an attack and find yourself ending up in a counter attack,” he points out.

“The ball carriers in the current Pakistan team need one or two players to shield or cover them in case they lose the ball. Not having a cover saw the ball taken from them several times during group tackling in different matches. When a player attacks without assistance and loses control of the ball, the defence too comes under pressure,” he says.

There were 36 matches played in the World Cup and 157 goals scored, bringing up the ratio of scoring to 4.36 per match. So the game is changing and becoming very fast.

There were 36 matches played in the World Cup and 157 goals scored, bringing up the ratio of scoring to 4.36 per match. So the game is changing and becoming very fast.

Begium’s captain Thomas Briels receives the coveted trophy
Begium’s captain Thomas Briels receives the coveted trophy

Former Pakistan hockey player and FIH-certified coach Adnan Zakir says that Belgium’s journey has been an interesting study. “They won a bronze medal in the 1920 Summer Olympics hosted by them in Antwerp. After that their performance dropped gradually as they were seen in the fourth position in the next Olympic Games, followed by dropping to seventh after that to the extent that they completely vanished from the hockey scene in 1976. But after the Sydney Olympics in 2000, they did a lot of heavy investment to lift their domestic structure. Foreign coaches were hired to raise their players’ game,” he says.

“One of these coaches was the former Australian midfielder Adam David Commens who rose to the position of Belgium hockey team’s head coach in 2007,” he adds.

Belgium’s game even today reflects Australia’s attacking approach. After Commens left the team, the more experienced Colin Batch, also from Australia, took over as coach. Batch may have been older than Commens but his knowledge was fresh. Getting his high performance coaching licence from the FIH in 1999, he spent the next eight years as assistant coach of his own Australian hockey team, which made a big difference after he took over as head coach of Belgium.

“Still the change was not immediate as Belgium lost the European Championship, World Hockey League and 2016 Olympic final, because they still had not gotten used to that kind of pressure of playing in big finals. But this time round in the World Cup, they looked very confident with a professional and disciplined performance by their attacking and defence players,” Zakir says.

So why can’t Pakistan regain its lost glory in field hockey? “Batch was not any common coach. He worked hard at his coaching to bring up the team he was coaching. For eight years he worked as assistant coach of the Australian hockey team before coming to Belgium. Here [in Pakistan] we make someone who may not even have coached a district team the coach of our national team. We still need more lessons in professionalism,” he concludes.

Published in Dawn, EOS, December 30th, 2018