Pakistan Hockey seems to have reached the lowest ebb in its history — now ranked a lowly 17th in world rankings and the national team unable, yet again, to qualify for the Olympics — and one keeps hearing about the Pakistan Hockey Federation’s struggles in arranging funds to send teams abroad to fulfill international commitments. In these bleak times, there is still a ray of hope in a small training school in Lahore known as the Dar Hockey Academy.
It would not be amiss to say that the Academy is the country’s finest hockey nursery. Founded in Lahore by the 1984 Olympic gold-medalist Tauqeer Dar, it has been of regular service to the national sport by providing players for the national team. But even beyond that, this nursery has been grooming players at the international level by sending its team and achieving success all over the world, all without government help.
When the Academy was first established, it began with just seven players. But it wasn’t long before it began recruiting talented boys from outside Lahore, who were also provided boarding, lodging and schooling.
Training at the Academy takes place on the synthetic turf of the National Hockey Stadium in Lahore by a team of coaches, always led by a distinguished coach. Currently, the head coach is the World Cup winner Danish Kaleem. Competition is a vital part of the training. The academy’s trainees, especially those residing at its hostel, are all enrolled in the same school and play for their school team in inter-school tournaments. The Nobel Hockey Club Lahore, consisting entirely of the academy’s boys, figures in local and outstation tournaments, and has won a number of laurels. Its boys are then picked up by departmental, city and provincial sides for national, senior and age-group championships. The Academy’s players have been regularly picked up by Pakistan’s age-group sides since 2009 and have been winning selection in the national (senior) sides since 2012.
The Dar Hockey Academy’s recent tour of Holland and Belgium shows that all may not be lost as far as Pakistan’s national sport is concerned
For international exposure, the Academy has gone on six tours of leading European hockey nations such as Holland, Belgium and Germany, besides visiting Asian hockey powers India and Malaysia.
“Our academy is a breeding ground for talented players,” says the Academy’s president Tauqeer Dar. “Foreign tours are meant to sharpen the skills of the boys by playing against the top sides of leading hockey nations.”
The Dar Hockey Academy’s recent tour of hockey superpowers Holland and Belgium is an indication that Dar’s claims are not without merit and of the promise and potential of this school.
This was the Academy’s sixth visit to Europe in nine years. The boys, aged 16 to 22, played 10 matches, nine in Holland and one in Belgium. The first six games in Holland were against the club sides of the Dutch League. Next, they figured in a six-team tournament at Boxtel. Almost all the sides in Holland fielded their top tier teams, which include professional players. Three teams — HGC, Den Bosch and Tilburg — are in the Hoofdklasse, the top tier of the Dutch League, universally acknowledged as the most competitive domestic hockey competition.
In Belgium, the academy’s team came across KHC Dragons, the biggest club of the country and the reigning world and European champions.
As always, Dar Hockey Academy camped at HC MOP, the hockey and cricket club in Vught near Eindhoven. Their first two matches were played on ‘home’ ground. The hospitality of the HC MOP was forgotten as the guests from Pakistan scored a big win against them. Den Bosch were also swept aside by them.
On the invitation of the Academy, Dutch hockey legend Paul Litjens, whose tally of 267 goals remained a world record until it was overtaken by Pakistan’s Sohail Abbas, had also travelled to Vught to watch this game.
He was suitably impressed. “The Dar Academy boys played very well,” Litjens remarked. “They have the potential to become an asset for Pakistan hockey in the future. I appreciate the efforts of the academy in nurturing raw talent and arranging such preparatory tours to the world’s leading hockey nations.”
For their next fixture, the Academy’s players stepped out to play HGC at The Hague, where it once again managed an easy victory. There were many distinguished faces in the crowd and Aizaz Khan, deputy head of mission at the Pakistan Embassy in Holland, was one of them. Present also was the Dutch hockey legend Marc Delissen (Olympics and World Cup winner) and another distinguished Olympian and World Cupper Maarten van Grimbergen.
However, Dar’s team was tested to the limit at Breda in the fourth game. Breda had hosted the last edition of the Champions Trophy in 2018 — the very same Champions Trophy competition played among the top hockey teams of the world that was started at Lahore in 1979 has now been replaced by the high profile FIH Pro League.
In a thriller, the lead changed twice before the Dar Hockey Academy came from 1-2 behind to emerge 3-2 victorious over a far more experienced opponent. At Boxtel, too, they had a resounding 4-0 success over a formidable MEP side.
Then it was time for the Belgian venture. The squad crossed the border to play KHC Dragons in Antwerp. The Dragons had finished fourth in the National League this year and were the champions the previous season. Apart from the Belgians, the Dragons’ side enjoyed the services of an Irish World Cupper, an Australian international and a Dutch. The game turned out to be a humdinger.
The Dar Hockey Academy led 3-0 five minutes into the third quarter. But the seasoned hosts made a spirited comeback and, through two set piece conversions, reduced the lead to the minimum. On a turnover, however, the lads from Pakistan scored again to win the game 4-2.
After the match, the Dragons’ head coach couldn’t help but comment, “Your skills are better than ours.” It was some comment from the trainer of the biggest club of the country, which is also the reigning world champion.
Back in Holland, the Dar Hockey Academy faced another mighty side in Tilburg HC, whose head coach is the double Olympic gold medalist Jeroen Delmee. The Dutch stalwart is also the coach of the fast improving French national side. It was yet another memorable encounter. Tilburg, who, like other Dutch clubs, were in the final phase of preparation for the Hoofdklasse, surprised the colts with two well taken penalty corner goals in the first half. They added two more in the third quarter. Four goals down with just 15 minutes left, the young lads of the Academy displayed resilience way beyond their years and managed to make it 2-4 before close of play. It could have been closer but the visitors couldn’t utilise at least three good opportunities in the dying minutes. However, the spirited fightback drew applause from everyone.
After their first defeat in seven matches, it was tournament time. The Metjehart Top Tournament at Boxtel featured six teams. The town is home to more than 60 families of Pakistani expatriates and they attended the matches in good numbers.
The Lahore-based academy, studded with players from different parts of Pakistan, won both its pool games with ease, 3-0 and 4-0, qualifying for the final. From the other pool, the hosts MEP also qualified for the final.
The final was held in a festive atmosphere on a bright Sunday afternoon with good support for both the sides. The expat Pakistanis with their families came carrying Pakistan flags with a dhol-beater. Pakistan’s ambassador in Holland, Shujaat Rathore, also came all the way from The Hague to witness the final.
The Dar Hockey Academy didn’t disappoint. Deservedly, they won the final by two goals to nil. Later, they were feted to a lavish meal by the proud Pakistanis in Boxtel.
The pride felt by expat Pakistanis is understandable. If nothing else, the Academy’s exploits have showed that all hope is not yet lost on Pakistan’s hockey front.
Published in Dawn, EOS, November 24th, 2019