Pakistan’s penalty corner king Sohail Abbas in action at the Sydney Olympics in 2000
Pakistan’s penalty corner king Sohail Abbas in action at the Sydney Olympics in 2000

This year, September 9 marked the 60th anniversary of Pakistan’s first-ever Olympic gold, which it won in hockey at the 1960 Rome Olympics. To date, Pakistan has won a total of three gold, three silver and four bronze medals at the Olympics. Save for two bronze medals, the rest have all arrived via hockey.

Pakistan last won an Olympic medal, a bronze in hockey, at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. After that, the closest Pakistan came to an Olympic medal in hockey was two decades ago, in 2000, also in September, when the national hockey team finished fourth at the Sydney Olympics.

By then, the decline of the once dominating force of world hockey had already set in. Pakistan, which won the World Cup in 1994, failed to make it to the semi-finals of either the 1996 Olympics or the 1998 World Cup. It went through the qualifiers for the 1996 Olympics. It was no different for the next edition. Pakistan had to finish among the top six in a 12-team qualifier in Osaka, Japan in March 2000. And they did it easily, finishing second.

Pakistan possessed a weapon which made them a real medal contender for the then upcoming Olympics. Sohail Abbas, the most lethal striker of penalty corners, top scored at the Olympic qualifiers, with 13 goals to his name. Sohail, who later finished his career with the highest number of international goals (348), had already started smashing records. His 60 goals in 1999 remain the highest tally of international goals by any player in a calendar year.

Twenty years ago, at the Sydney Olympics, was the last time Pakistan came even close to winning an Olympic medal in hockey. Things have only become worse since

The Pakistan Hockey Federation planned it well. The Sydney Olympics were scheduled to begin on September 15. The Pakistan team was sent to a preparatory and acclimatisation tour of Australia and neighbouring New Zealand well before that. They drew the three test series against Australia in the first week of August, stayed there for a while before moving to New Zealand, where Pakistan won the four match series 3-0. The team returned to Australia about 12 days before the Olympics opening ceremony.

The Green Shirts began shakily. In the opening pool game against minnows Canada, they had to come from behind twice to draw 2-2. Next, it was a stronger Great Britain side, but Pakistan appeared a completely transformed side. Dominating throughout, they found the target four times in each half to decimate the British 8-1. Pakistan hockey team’s outstanding display on Sept 18 was acknowledged by the media covering the Olympics as the ‘Team Achievement of the Day’. European Champions Germany were the opponents in the third pool match. The well-contested tie, in which the two sides appeared wary of each other, ended 1-1.

In the penultimate pool match, Pakistan came across Malaysia. Pakistan had an easy 5-2 win over them in the Olympic qualifiers a few months back. But at the Sydney Olympics, the lowly-rated Malaysians had caused quite a stir by holding the mighty Holland to a goalless draw. They had also drawn against Great Britain and had gone down to Germany by a solitary goal.

Hence, the Malaysians entered the field against Pakistan with a lot of confidence, which showed. In a tight encounter, Malaysia went ahead in the 21st minute. Only three minutes later, Dr Atif Bashir equalised. The see-saw battle continued in the second half. With seven minutes left, Suhaimi, the scorer of the first goal, again put Malaysia ahead. Defeat loomed, but Sohail Abbas rescued Pakistan with a penalty corner goal in the last minute and it ended 2-2.

Moments later, a very bizarre incident was witnessed on Pakistan Television. Pakistan hockey team’s manager Islahuddin, who had managed the national team numerous times since the early 1980s, told the nation, “Pakistan is now out of the race for the semi-final and will now be playing the classification matches for the minor positions.”

In fact, even if Pakistan had lost that match against Malaysia, they could have made it to the semi-final by winning the last pool match vs Holland. So much for Islah Bhai’s arithmetic. More about his planning and coaching later.

So, Pakistan had everything to play for against Holland. They needed a victory. They had the better of early exchanges. Sohail Abbas kept his record of scoring in every match. His penalty corner conversion in the 22nd minute made it 1-0. Holland came back strongly and exerted great pressure, but failed to find the equaliser when the first half ended.

The second half also witnessed a tense battle. The Dutch had more of the possession and also opportunities. But a combination of some resolute Pakistani defence and ill luck denied them, even though Pakistan did make a few penetrations via counter attacks. One such turnover, with just three minutes left on the clock, resulted in a rebound off the goalkeeper. Centre forward Kashif Jawad pounced on it to double the advantage and sent the millions of TV viewers in Pakistan into jubilation. Though Pakistan had won just two of the five pool matches, they topped the pool with three draws.

Two days later, they faced South Korea, who were lucky to finish second in their pool, in the semi-final.

Sohail Abbas, the face of Pakistan at the Olympics, had lived up to expectations, scoring seven of the team’s 15 goals in the pool matches. And he was provided with all the chances in the semi-final, watched by almost every household in Pakistan. Pakistanis attacked from the off side and dominated the exchanges. No less than seven penalty corners came their way.

The Koreans deployed a hitherto not-so-well-known strategy to counter Sohail. Not one, but two rushers sprinted straight towards Sohail to narrow his angle, a somewhat suicidal approach. During one such dash, the Korean rusher was hit by a Sohail bullet and had to be carried off the pitch. Yet, the plucky Koreans persisted with the ploy and Sohail couldn’t find the net. The Koreans, who defended for long periods, managed to get only three penalty corners, the last of which came with 13 minutes left. And they succeeded to score with an indirect drill. The score line of 1-0 stayed. Pakistan lost the match against the run of play.

Surprisingly, off all the seven penalty corners, Pakistan went for a direct attempt by Sohail. No alternate tactic was adopted. Even an average follower of the game might have seen that, had Pakistan employed some indirect option off the penalty corner, they would have had a better chance of success in scoring. Especially, with two defenders sprinting towards Sohail, the Koreans were not left with many on the goal line, so an indirect drill presented a great chance to find the target.

In the bronze medal game, Pakistan confronted Australia. The hosts, too, had lost the semi-final in a disappointing manner, in a penalty shootout against the eventual gold medalists Holland. Buoyed by a jam-packed stadium, mostly the supporters of the home team, the Kookaburras easily overcame the visibly dispirited Green Shirts 6-3.

This scribe talked to some members of the 2000 Olympics Pakistan team. They all agree that it was ill planning by the manager. They say that Islahuddin totally relied on direct flicks by Sohail Abbas, while no indirect drill was practiced. The Pakistan team had a couple of other good penalty corner flickers in Imran Yousaf and Ali Raza. Apart from the indirect drill, another option could have been to employ two pairs at the circle top, to cause confusion among the rushers. The manager didn’t consider even that.

The Korean manager later revealed, “We had two days before the semi-final. The players and the management thoroughly studied the videos of Pakistan’s penalty corners. We noted the time taken by the ball pushed by the injector from the goal line to reach Sohail. The two fastest Koreans practiced the sprints to reach as close as possible to limit his vision of the goal, thus narrowing down the angle.”

When asked about Pakistan’s preparation/video analysis before the all-important semi-final, the members of the 2000 Olympics team laughed. They said that, after the last pool match, Islahuddin told them to completely relax before the semi-final. Islahuddin never employed anything called video analysis. His coaching consisted of a physical training session in the morning and a practice match among the squad members in the evening. There was nothing regarding how to tackle a particular opponent. Occasionally, some senior members of the team assembled the boys in front of a black board. With a white chalk, they tried to teach some strategy. But it was no substitute for video analysis.

The players agree that they didn’t play well in the bronze medal game against Australia because none of them slept the night after the semi-final, which they thought they could have won. So near yet so far. And all this reflected in the third place game.

Things would have been completely different if the Pakistan team had the services of a reputed professional foreign coach such as Hans Jorritsma or Roelant Oltmans. Then they would have certainly played the final against Holland, the team Pakistan defeated in the pool. It is rightly said, ‘Great players don’t always make great coaches.’

The writer is a freelance sports journalist

Email: ijaz62@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 27th, 2020

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