Hockey legend Samiullah Khan recalled a cold but shining morning in January 1982 when he together with other players of Pakistan’s national hockey squad landed at Karachi airport holding the glittering World Cup trophy after his team beat West Germany 3-1 in the final in Bombay (now Mumbai).
As soon as the champions emerged from the lounge, thousands of exuberant hockey lovers chanted "Pakistan Zindabad", or Long Live Pakistan, while showering them with rose petals and placing garlands around their necks.
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Some of the elated sports lovers would hoist the players on their shoulders as the security officials had to struggle to make way for the team to hop on their bus.
“Those moments are unforgettable. That was the golden era of hockey when the sport would run in the nation’s blood,” Samiullah, also known as ‘The Flying Horse’ because of his great speed, told Anadolu Agency.
It took the champions six hours to cover a 15-kilometre distance from the airport to the mausoleum of the father of the nation, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, due to the huge crowds.
To the surprise of many, hockey is the national sport of an otherwise cricket-obsessed Pakistan, which ruled the game for decades, notably from 1948 to 1984.
Having won world cups in 1971, 1978, 1982 and 1994, Pakistan is the most successful and only team that has won the title four times.
Apart from the four world cup titles, Pakistan has also won three Olympic gold medals — in 1960, 1968 and 1984 — eight Asian Games and four Champions Trophy tournaments.
But the sport, for which the country was world-renowned, is now a picture of apathy.
Spectator-less stadiums, declining numbers of players and a virtual media blackout are enough proof that the nation has lost interest in the sport.
Scenes during the ongoing national hockey championship at Abdul Sattar Edhi Hockey Stadium in Karachi further exposed the government and Pakistan Hockey Federation’s (PHF) so-called efforts to regain a spot on the victory stand.
Several players were crammed into small halls and rooms with their clothes and kits hanging above them from the walls.
Some players queued up outside the grounds to fetch water from a cooler after spending a sleepless night due to a power outage in the sultry weather.
"What kind of performance do you expect from us if we couldn’t sleep the whole night?" said a player who represented the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province squad taking part in the championship.
"Look at the conditions and facilities (here) first and then expect us to compete at the international level," he said with a sarcastic smile, requesting not to be named.
Currently, a total of 440 clubs are registered with the PHF, of which only 40 are active, according to Samiullah.
The country is in 17th place in the world hockey ranking, which means it cannot even directly qualify to play the final rounds of the World Cup, Olympics or Champions Trophy. It has to play a qualifying round to secure a place in the final rounds of these tournaments.
Several teams which were trained and coached by Pakistani players, including China, South Korea, Japan and Malaysia, are ahead of Pakistan in the world ranking.
"It's painful to see the current hockey situation. But this has not happened all of a sudden. It's a gradual decline," Hanif Khan, another hockey star who was part of the national squad that won several titles from 1976 to 1985, told Anadolu Agency.
Khan, who scored 145 goals in 150 matches, cited political intervention, destruction of domestic structure and lack of facilities as key reasons behind the collapse of hockey in the country.
Samiullah, who scored 56 goals in 150 matches, vindicated Khan's view.
"Apart from political intervention, Pakistan could not meet the latest infrastructure standards, which ultimately affected the team's performance but also reduced youths' interest in the sport," he observed, referring to the introduction of AstroTurf — an artificial grass surface ground in hockey in 1975.
"Pakistan had managed to compete even after the introduction of AstroTurf until the mid-1980s because of its super-fit and experienced players. But gradually, the number of good players declined due to the lack of this facility in most of the country," Samiullah noted.
Until 1990, Pakistan had only four AstroTurf grounds compared to the Netherlands, which has over 200 of them.
Currently, Pakistan has 40 AstroTurf grounds, including a few with Desso Turf — an improved version of AstroTurf — for its population of 210 million compared to over 600 for the Netherlands' 17 million people.
'Glamour' of cricket
Both Khan and Samiullah see "over glamourization" of cricket as another key reason behind the shift of youths’ and sponsors' focus from hockey.
"There is much more money, glamour and recognition in cricket compared to hockey. That's why more and more youths are inclined towards cricket," Samiullah said, citing the example of a former national hockey team captain, Zeeshan Ashraf, who worked as a part-time cashier at a government bank, whereas many former and current cricketers are working as vice-presidents and at other high-profile positions in public and private sector organisations.
Until 1990, Pakistan had over a dozen departmental teams. But gradually, both state-run and private institutions started disbanding their teams due to financial constraints and the country's dwindling ranking at the international level. Job quotas for almost all sports except cricket have been significantly reduced in public and private sector organisations in recent decades.
"If there is no money, no job and no recognition, then what's the attraction for youths to pick hockey?" Khan said.
The two legends, however, acknowledged that glamour and sponsorship were linked to performances.
"Pakistan needs victories. Glamour and money will automatically follow,” Khan said.
"But it will take 15 to 20 years to bring the current hockey structure to the international level if grassroots steps — particularly restoration of domestic and departmental structure and non-political appointments in the hockey federation — are taken today", he maintained.
Seconding Khan's view, Samiullah said Pakistan may find a place among top eight teams in the next four years if the federation "takes sincere steps".
Asif Bajwa, the secretary of the PHF, acknowledged that the revival of hockey in the country was an uphill task, especially when the federation was reeling from a financial crunch.
The PHF plans to set up two academies — in the north and south — to groom young players, who would later join the senior team, in addition to organising hockey tournaments at the under-14 and under-16 level.
Bajwa, who is serving as PHF secretary for a second term, rejected the senior players’ claim about political appointments in the federation, saying including himself, all the presidents and secretaries were former hockey players.
“This is a crucial period when a World Cup champion is the country’s prime minister. If hockey is not revived during his tenure, then it will never be,” said Bajwa, who represented Pakistan in international hockey from 1991 to 1997, referring to Prime Minister Imran Khan, who won the only Cricket World Cup for the country in 1992.
"We are approaching the prime minister and the chief ministers to seek their help for hockey’s revival. We must understand that you may chalk out good plans, but you must have resources to implement them," he added.