March 17, 2019


Pakistan hockey has been facing one setback after another for a long time but, unlike in the past, when there used to be still some hope for the game, things seem to have truly hit rock bottom. The Fédération Inter­nationale de Hockey’s (FIH) throwing Pakistan out of the FIH Pro League has left the country’s national game in a quandary.

Hockey’s future as an Olympic sport has remained in danger for quite some time now. In 2013, it was even shortlisted to be voted out of the Olympics. This compelled the FIH to carry out a long process of consultation between a number of stakeholders to finally come up with a hockey revolution comprising four clear goals — developing innovative, exciting and entertaining events; increasing the degree of professionalism in the sport; building a recognised and powerful image for hockey; and generating millions of followers from around the world.

Launched in January 2019, FIH’s Pro League — a home-and-away league involving the world’s leading hockey nations — is seen as the focal point of the game for achieving all this while promising to completely change the landscape of international hockey, with a regular calendar of events played in packed stadia across the world, throughout the year.

Pakistan hockey is no more a part of the game’s international body FIH’s Pro League. This is merely symptomatic of the rot that has set in because of administrative bungling

It had been observed even at the premier tournaments — including the World Cup — that, other than the matches involving the home team, the stadiums were mostly empty. In the FIH Pro League, all the 128 matches in the round-robin league stage would be a home game as each tie features a home team.

The set-up would see international teams in the league playing against opponents once at home and once away each year. Following several months of competition, the top four teams will then qualify for a grand finale tournament to determine the winners of the entire competition. It is predicted that the increased commercial potential of implementing the new structure will generate considerably more value for the sport. There is also prize money of $250,000 across the men’s and women’s events.

Unprecedented for hockey, now broadcast viewers would be exposed to top-class hockey every weekend for six months of the year. Furthermore, the games are to be telecast live on wherever a broadcaster is not showing a match.

The teams participating in this new home-and-away league are selected on a clearly defined set of qualification criteria designed to maintain the quality of the league and a high standard of events, and not merely on the basis of the rankings. So Pakistan, ranked 13th at the time, were fortunate to be selected among the nine nations on the basis of the country’s great hockey legacy, a big market and potential of high TV viewership. But the biggest hurdle was that no country was prepared to

visit Pakistan for this league. Here, CEO of England Hockey, Ms Sally Munday helped Pakistan. She persuaded David Sweetman, CEO of Scottish Hockey Union, in making Glasgow Pakistan’s home.

The last item was the financial deal between the Scottish Hockey Union and the Pakistan Hockey Federation (PHF). But it fell through when the Scottish Hockey Union pulled out. The FIH then tried to reschedule Pakistan’s home games along with their away games. Some national associations agreed while others didn’t. Still, Pakistan’s eight home games were rescheduled, with one each in Argentina, Belgium, Germany, England, New Zealand and three in Holland. FIH went to the last extent to accommodate Pakistan.

But on January 23, just 10 days before their opening match in the Pro League, PHF informed FIH that they were no longer able to play their first three matches due to “unavoidable circumstances.” The FIH was left with no other choice but to ban/suspend Pakistan from the Pro League, making the inaugural men event an eight team affair. Participation in the FIH Pro League would have given a new lease of life to Pakistan hockey. But due to the PHF’s ineptness, Pakistan missed out on a golden chance to rejoin the top tier of international hockey.

The PHF’s withdrawing from the Pro League just 10 days before its commencement has not only caused problems for the FIH but also for the national associations of the teams playing in the Pro League. Tickets of Pakistan’s first phase matches in Argentina, Australia and New Zealand had already been sold, while those of the second phase games in Europe were also being purchased. These associations found themselves in a difficult position. They were not sure how to tackle the situation and compensate the fans who had already bought tickets. Hockey Australia announced that, to replace the cancelled match, the national team would hold a coaching clinic and fan interaction, including signing opportunities, and an exhibition match.

Now there are also chances that Pakistan might be banned from the FIH events for a certain period of time with no participation in the 2020 Olympics. It means that the former hockey super power would become a third tier hockey nation, of its own making. Pakistan may even be banned from the FIH events for quite some time apart from having incurred a heavy fine.

For the followers of Pakistan hockey within and outside the country, it came as no surprise. The way the incumbent PHF had been functioning, this was on the cards.

President Pakistan Hockey Federation (PHF), Brigadier (retd) Khalid Sajjad Khokhar was first handed over the reins by the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif in 2015 after Pakistan failed to qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics. He was reelected unopposed in 2018 in a highly controversial manner.

It is pertinent to mention here that the representatives of legitimate hockey associations from Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan had denounced the malafide intentions and tactics of the national federation to bring their blue-eyed people in through allegedly bogus elections even before the PHF elections. They had also made public the unfair modus operandi of the PHF’s inter-club scrutiny done by the especially selected folk. In many districts, according to them, non-functional and fake clubs were given voting rights to select the officials of the district hockey association while sidelining the genuine clubs. The district hockey associations officials thus elected then elected the provincial hockey association officials. Hence they claim the PHF got elected people of their own choice in three provinces (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa remained an exception), only to clear the ground for the PHF president to get elected unopposed.

And so the secretary of the Punjab Hockey Association was none other than Lt Col (retd) Asif Khokhar, the brother of the PHF president. His cousin Rai Usman, too, got elected as the associate secretary of the Punjab Hockey Association. Then he appointed his nephew, Saqib Niaz Khokhar, as a PHF coordinator. The nepotism didn’t end here. Another brother, Sajid Khokhar, was made a liaison officer with the visiting Kazakhstan national team in January and also with the International XI, who were in Pakistan early in 2018.

The popular story goes that the PHF president wanted to become the president of the Pakistan Tennis Federation (PTF). But when the veteran politician from KP Salim Saifullah took control of Pakistan tennis, it was the PHF which became Khokhar’s target. He happens to be a close relative of Ahsan Iqbal, the powerful federal minister in the former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s cabinet, and the link helped him force his way into Pakistan hockey.

His lust for supremacy in a sports body is not new. One vividly remembers that, in 2002, Khalid Khokhar held important portfolios in Pakistan’s Amateur Athletics Federation and PTF, apart from being the director of the Army Sports Board and manager of the national hockey team — all at the same time. He resides in Islamabad where, till recently, he was also wearing another hat — MD of the Pakistan Mineral Development Corporation. According to PHF sources, he graces the PHF headquarters in Lahore once in three months.

Early this month, a person no less than Zahir Shah, president of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Hockey Association, who is also a member of the PHF Executive Board as well as its Congress, has made startling allegations about the financial bungling in the PHF.

In his statement, which appeared in all the media, Shah said that transactions of over Rs800 million have been made from the two PHF accounts during the last three and a half years. He requested the Senate Committee on Inter-Provincial Coordination to summon the bank officials (who know about the Karachi and Lahore accounts of the PHF) and see for themselves how much transaction was made from these accounts from September 1, 2015 till February 4, 2019.

“Some startling revelations would come to the fore when respected senators summon details of the entire expenditures.

“Secondly, the Senate committee will have to look into all transactions to know whether the amount was transferred genuinely to other accounts. For example, cheque No 453 dated February 10, 2016 of the amount of Rs5 million was issued and cleared in the name of ‘Effective Media.’ No one knows which media that is.”

He also expressed his serious reservations over the PHF’s handling of audit of accounts. “I have requested the federation through my two letters written to the PHF secretary regarding the audited statements for the year 2015-2016, 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 along with a complete note by the auditor. I have not received any response to my letters. It is incumbent upon the federation to hand over the audited report of all its expenses to the Congress members at the end of each financial year. What they have given to members a couple of years back was only a two-page summary.”

Another important factor Zahir Shah spoke about during his media talk was about the issuance of visas during the last three-and-half-years. “I request the Senate to direct the concerned embassies to provide details on PHF letters issued for visas so that we would be in a position to know as who were the persons who were issued visas on PHF letters after that. Did these individuals deserve getting the federation letter for visas?”

Since 2016, the PHF has also been talking about a Super Hockey League to be staged in Pakistan on the lines of the Pakistan Super League with foreign players playing. It has been rescheduled and then deferred every six months over one excuse or another — such as the government’s failure in issuing NOCs or a busy calendar for foreign players playing in European Leagues. This year only, tentative dates for the event were announced thrice by the PHF, the last of which happened to be the second half of March. However, once again the league has been postponed indefinitely.

The future for hockey in Pakistan is not difficult to guess.

Published in Dawn, EOS, March 17th, 2019