Roelant Oltmans
Roelant Oltmans

A few days ago, Pakistan’s former hockey captain and goalkeeping great Salman Akbar posted an Instagram live session with the legendary Dutch coach Roelant Oltmans. Otlmans had two stints with the Pakistan national team, in 2003-4 and in 2018. He talked about the bittersweet memories of his time spent here. One of the most successful field hockey coaches in history, Oltmans guided Holland’s men to Olympics as well as World Cup golds, and their women to a World Cup victory as well.

During his first stint here, Pakistan finished fifth in field hockey at the 2004 Olympics, narrowly missing out on the semi-final spot, but scoring the highest number of goals with the biggest goal difference. They have not finished above seventh at the Olympics since then. Pakistan even failed to qualify for the 2016 Olympics and the next.

Before joining the Pakistan team in 2018, Oltmans was in India from 2013-17, in the roles of performance director and, later, the head coach. During his time there, the Indian team rose from 13th to 6th in world rankings.

Where did Pakistan stand when Oltmans took over the team in 2018? In June 2017, at the Hockey World League semi-finals in London, the Pakistan team twice lost to India, by 1-7 and 1-6, respectively, the worst ever defeats against its traditional rivals. Even Canada humbled them 6-0.

Khawaja Junaid, the head coach was changed, with Farhat Khan coming in as the manager/head coach. Pakistan still finished a disappointing third at the 2017 Asia Cup. Worse was to follow at the 4-Nation Invitational Festival in Australia. Pakistan suffered their worst defeat in the international arena, going down 1-9 to their hosts. Again, the manager and coaches were axed.

Former coach Roelant Oltmans has served Pakistan hockey enough to know what its strengths and shortcomings are. In an exclusive interview with Eos, he bares his heart

The first assignment for the new Hassan Sardar-led management was a lowly three-nation event in Oman in February 2018. Pakistan were once again defeated by Japan. Even the hosts Oman, ranked around 20 places below Pakistan, held the Green Shirts to a draw — Oman hockey’s finest achievement to date.

In stepped Roelant Oltmans, whose first assignment with Pakistan during his second stint was at the 2018 Commonwealth Games. He made an immediate impact. Pakistan ended seventh, but there were a lot of positives. The Green Shirts remained undefeated throughout, achieving creditable draws against teams rated much higher. Mostly, they came from behind to draw level. Notably, it was after six consecutive defeats that Pakistan were able to hold India to a draw.

Oltmans wasn’t satisfied with the players’ fitness. On his recommendation, the Pakistan Hockey Federation (PHF) attached the well-known Australian physical instructor Daniel Barry with the team.

Next was the Champions Trophy’s 37th and last edition in 2018. The Champions Trophy, as everyone knows, is contested by six top-ranked hockey-playing nations. As its 2018 edition was the last, the FIH extended a special invitation to 13th-ranked Pakistan, mainly because they had introduced the Champions Trophy in 1978, and also donated the trophy.

The other five countries were ranked among the world’s top six. Some anticipated a repeat of the World Hockey League of 2017. Pakistan finished last, losing the 5th-place playoff in the penalty shootout, but they were impressive almost throughout, especially with their show against world’s top three sides.

Against the then world champions and world No. 1 Australia, Pakistan went down fighting 1-2. In their previous meeting, Pakistan had suffered that unforgettable 1-9 humiliation. The Green Shirts achieved a memorable result against the Olympic Champions Argentina (world No. 2), winning 4-1. They also held the world No. 3 Belgium to a draw. The television commentators and experts all remarked that Pakistan appeared a team transformed. Oltmans’ name was even considered for the ‘Coach of the Tournament.’ Most importantly, the team displayed a structure. Everyone knew what he had to do in various situations.

Yes, there was a disappointment at the 2018 Asian Games. After winning all the five pool matches convincingly, Pakistan lost in the semi-final to the eventual champions Japan 0-1. However, under Oltmans, Pakistan were improving steadily and had started knocking on the doors of the top tier.

But in September 2018, Oltmans suddenly quit the job. In a letter that appeared in the press, he explained: “After long reflections on the past half year, I have decided to resign as head coach of the Pakistan team. I’m responsible for the performance and the results of the team. But I feel that the circumstances at present don’t create an environment where we can get the best [out] of the team. I don’t think the PHF has the possibility to change the circumstances to a level that is required from my point of view.”

During his chat with Salman Akbar, and later with myself, Oltmans talked about his resignation and the maladies inflicting Pakistan hockey.

About team selection, he says: “There is no such thing called ‘selection committee’ in any leading hockey nation. The head coach selects the team. He spends weeks and months with the players and is fully aware of their strengths: technical, physical and psychological. Then, he is also answerable for the team’s performance. The selection committee in Pakistan comes only for a day or two to watch the trials. How could you assess a player in such a short time? Mostly, these selectors have their own agenda, that is, selecting favourite players.

“At times, it was quite frustrating. Once, the trials for the national team were scheduled in Lahore at 11am. A couple of selectors were coming from Karachi. Due to fog, the flight got delayed indefinitely. I decided to utilise the time and engaged the probables in a practice session. Not much time had passed after the practice session when the selectors arrived from Karachi. They demanded the trials to be held straight away as they had to take the return flight later in the day. I protested about the boys being tired but was overruled.”

The PHF’s practice of appointing a selection committee is only a ploy to garner the support of former stalwarts. The appointment of the current chief selector, Manzoor Jr, epitomises that. Manzoor Jr was one of the harshest critics of the PHF. A very well-attended and well-covered seminar at the Lahore Press Club in April 2019 was addressed by 10 hockey stars of different eras. Manzoor Jr, the Olympic gold medal winning captain, told the seminar “the current PHF officials are inept and corrupt with no ability to control the decline. I appeal to the Prime Minister to take immediate action against them.”

A few weeks later, when the PHF approached Manzoor Jr to become the chief selector, he gladly agreed to join the ‘inept and corrupt PHF.’

Oltmans also talked about the hierarchical system in Pakistan hockey: “The respect for the elders is a good thing in Pakistani culture, but it has no room in a team game such as hockey. Many a time, I saw a senior player telling, rather ordering, the junior to pass the ball to him even though there were better options for the junior, but he obliged.

“I vividly remember an important match in 2004. A junior player passed the ball to Nadeem ND, the Pakistan captain, on the latter’s asking, though the captain was surrounded by five opponents. No need telling them that such an attitude has a negative effect on the team’s performance. Further, it hampers the junior players’ development. His own thinking and decision-making suffers. During physical training also, I have seen juniors performing the job of assistant to the seniors.”

Lamenting Pakistan’s withdrawal from the FIH Pro League, Oltmans regards it as an opportunity lost. “Pakistan were lucky to be selected among the nine countries, and that too for four years. Scotland had agreed to host Pakistan’s home games. All this had been finalised in July 2017 while the inaugural season of the Pro League was scheduled to start in January 2019. The PHF had enough time to work out the modalities. Yet, just 10 days before their first match, the PHF withdrew the team, citing financial problems. It was a great blow to Pakistan hockey. They would have been a part of the top tier of international hockey.”

He emphasises that Pakistan should follow the Indian model. “India had failed to qualify for the 2008 Olympics. They made it to the 2012 Olympics but finished last at 12th.

Instead of opting for the then prevailing practice of going for some senior bureaucrat/army officer or former hockey great, a business tycoon Narinder Batra was made the president of Hockey India. Batra, using his business acumen, brought unprecedented sponsorship for Indian hockey, and turned Hockey India into a self-sufficient corporate body. India’s performance in the international arena showed constant improvement and now they are a medal contender at the next Olympics.”

Coming to his resignation as Pakistan’s head coach, Oltmans divulges, “The PHF wanted immediate results. I maintained there is no magic wand. The approach has to be ‘process-oriented’ not ‘result-oriented’. The Belgian and Indian examples speak for themselves. You also need to create similar conditions which the PHF couldn’t. Still, Pakistan’s performance was showing an upward graph.

“The PHF also disturbed my plans. Once, the announced camp was cancelled just one day before its commencement. Moreover, my salary was also often delayed. You will be surprised to know that I am still waiting for the salary for my last month’s work, and 19 months have passed.”

Meanwhile, Pakistan’s current head coach, Khawaja Junaid, has been given the coaching role of the national senior and junior teams a number of times since the turn of the century. The last time he was shown the door was after the World Hockey League in London 2017, where Pakistan lost twice to India, 1-7 and 1-6, and also 0-6 to Canada. Never, in the country’s history, had Pakistan suffered so many humiliations in a single event.

Later, Junaid, too, became a big critic of the PHF. He also came down heavily on the PHF President Brig (retd) Khalid Sajjad Khokhar during the forum at the Lahore Press Club. But soon he was reappointed as the head coach by the same Khokhar who had fired him just two years back, reportedly with harsh words.

There are some cultures even legendary coaches like Oltmans cannot change.

The writer is a freelance sports journalist Email: ijaz62@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 24th, 2020

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