KARACHI: As India ended a 41-year medal drought in Olympic hockey, picking bronze at the Tokyo Games last month, thoughts inevitably shifted to Pakistan’s long wait which will stretch to 32 years come Paris 2024.
The Pakistan Hockey Federation, though, remains hopeful Pakistan’s Olympic medal drought wouldn’t stretch to four decades even if things seem bleak at this point in time with Tokyo marking the second successive Games in which the former four-time world champions failed to qualify.
The PHF believes that the start of the franchise-based Pakistan Hockey Super League will help take Pakistan back to where they belong. It now has first-hand evidence on how a similar initiative helped India. But initially launched in 2016, the first edition of the PHSL is yet to be held.
“The model [similar to cricket’s Pakistan Super League] is ready, people have been engaged and it’s good to go,” PHF secretary Asif Bajwa told Dawn. “We wanted to start it earlier but the Covid-19 pandemic caused the delay in it but as soon as we get an open window from the International Hockey Federation (FIH), we will be off.”
Bajwa, a member of the last Pakistan squad that won a medal at the Olympics — a bronze in Barcelona 1992, seems convinced that the league will boost the sport and arrest its fast decline.
“It will definitely develop hockey,” he insisted, “and also open new revenue streams for us.”
“India’s hockey revival began after they got their funding sorted,” added Bajwa, a member of Pakistan’s last World Cup-winning team of 1994. “They raised the profile of the sport, so much so that they got government and private funding which helped them end their Olympic medal drought.”
Not everyone else is convinced, though, that the PHSL should be the way forward.
“It will be a futile exercise,” Samiullah Khan, a two-time World Cup winner with Pakistan, told Dawn. “Pakistan hockey will not improve till we start improving our own standard domestically. Mediocre local players playing with a bunch of foreign players who will not be high-calibre ones will not help us revive our glory days.”
The difference in views isn’t generational — at 70, Samiullah is 18 years Bajwa’s senior. Salman Akbar, 39, belonging to Pakistan’s latest generation of retired hockey players, believes the PHSL will do no good unless the PHF is run by professionals rather than former Olympians and retired servicemen.
“We’ve been hearing of a franchise league for a long time,” the former Pakistan goalkeeper told Dawn from the Netherlands. “But I don’t think the people at the helm of the PHF have the capability to pull it off. I don’t think they can even attract top players.”
The former goalkeeper, who has been openly critical of the way hockey has been run in the country, agrees with Samiullah’s view that there needs to be greater emphasis on grooming local players.
“Global hockey has changed,” added Salman. “And we haven’t caught up with the times. The PHF wants to do a league but that is just one of several steps that need to be taken and not necessarily the first step. You have to first work on your domestic structure.”
Salman has been a first-hand witness to how the several leagues initiated by India during the last 16 years helped lay the platform for India’s Olympic bronze in Tokyo. He played in the Premier Hockey League, which ran from 2005 to 2008, and was a commentator for the Hockey India League, which had five editions from 2013 to 2017.
In between those two events there was also an edition of a rebel tournament, World Series Hockey, in 2012.
Those leagues brought fresh investment into Indian hockey, and despite them ceasing to exist, it saw an increase in the number of hockey academies and coaches. Reviving India’s hockey had become a matter of national interest.
“Of course it helps develop your local talent,” said Salman. “But they had a long-term vision plan. They had a lot of other things going on for them. They put a lot of effort into increasing participation, infrastructure and coaching first.
“Then, they offered top contracts to bring in the best international players and it was not only playing with or against them that helped give their local players confidence but there was so much more.
“They were travelling and staying together, sharing the changing rooms and dugout, attending team meetings and executing the same plans on the ground. It showed them that skill-wise, they were at the same level but it was what those foreign players were doing off the pitch that made the difference.”
It made such a difference that despite the Hockey India League folding up, Indian players had a secure financial future. Most of their national team players are employed by public sector units and government companies.
“We had that same structure during our glory days,” rued Samiullah. “Sports flourished in the country due to departments who used to offer employment to players. Federations and departments used to work hand in hand.
“Departments were forced to retain players because there was tournament activity all year round and it was also a matter of national pride because the team kept winning international titles.
“At this point in time, players are only offered short-term playing contracts. That’s what will happen with the league as well. We need to put the house in order first before taking the next step towards the league. It’s a matter of getting the priorities right.”
Bajwa argues that the system can be built around a successful PHSL. He lamented the fact that there has been no continuity in PHF’s plans when people at the helm have changed, and in a bid to prove the thought process has changed, he is taking forward the PHSL plan which was initially launched by his predecessor and former team-mate Shahbaz Ahmed Senior.
“Holding the PHSL will help bring more and more youngsters into hockey,” said Bajwa. “It will help us get a system in place and will help the game flourish at grassroots level. It might be a one-month league but the benefits will be on several levels.
“Right now, we cannot get sponsorships or get investment because top international teams don’t want to tour Pakistan but once the PHSL begins, we will have more investment.”
Salman, though, offers a more grim picture.
“We have a PHF which can’t attract sponsors because there is a huge trust-deficit between it and the private sector,” he said. “Globally, we see hockey being run by sports professionals, who may or may not have a hockey background. But in Pakistan, we’re still reliant on former Olympians who have no idea whatsoever on modern methods.
“Those officials simply cannot attract the sort of money to launch a successful league and if the league is eventually launched, it will be a sub-standard one which I don’t see doing any wonders for our hockey.”
It’s up to the PHF now to prove him wrong.
Published in Dawn, September 15th, 2021