It was a pleasant surprise for hockey lovers when the Pakistan Hockey Federation (PHF) announced that Pakistan’s national team was to play “international” matches in April/May against leading European hockey-playing nations such as Belgium, Holland and Spain, ranked World No 2, 4 and 6, respectively.
It was heartening to know that these top teams were even willing to play against Pakistan which, after all, is now ranked an ignominious 18th in the world. Also, the prospect promised to be a good experience for the Green Shirts, who have been devoid of good international competition in recent times due to the team’s poor ranking and the Covid-19 pandemic.
Then, when Pakistan won its first tour match against Holland 5-3, the team’s manager, Khawaja Junaid, lost no time in congratulating the entire nation. Headlines such as ‘Pakistan hammers World No 4 Holland’ and ‘Pakistan hockey is back on track’ were all over the news media. However, keen followers of the game remained sceptical.
The Dutch hockey league Hoofdklasse is the most competitive and lucrative domestic hockey competition in the world. Its popularity and fan following are second only to football in Holland. And it was the business end of the Hoofdklasse when Pakistan played the matches against Holland. Almost all the first-choice Dutch players were unavailable, as they were busy with the league.
A couple of wins by the national side on a European tour had the Pakistan Hockey Federation touting it as the sport getting back on track in the country. But what was the reality of these matches and these wins?
And still, in the second match, the Dutch team turned the tables and defeated Pakistan’s national side 4-1.
The Royal Netherlands Hockey Board (KNHB) confirmed that the team that played Pakistan in the two matches was not the national team but only their development squad. Moreover, the matches didn’t have the status of an international match, they were friendly games only.
It was after a long period of testing that a new world ranking model took effect from January 1, 2020, following approval by the International Hockey Federation (FIH) Executive Board. Moving away from the previous tournament-based ranking system, this new, match-based system involves an exchange of points between the two national teams competing in each match played.
The number of points exchanged depends on the result of the match, the relative ranking of the teams and the importance of the match. Hence, these friendly games have no bearing on the FIH rankings of Pakistan and Holland.
The PHF’s disinformation was exposed to the public via the media by some former Pakistani hockey stars. This made the PHF’s Secretary Asif Bajwa issue a press release. He tried to cover up the truth with words such as: “Despite the engagements of the Dutch players, the KNHB tried to raise a strong team.”
He refrained from mentioning that the matches were only friendly games, not internationals. The PHF also released a video statement of the Dutch national team coach Jeroen Delmee, who simply said that the Pakistan team won the first match and lost the second, and also wished them success in the Asia Cup and Commonwealth Games. There was no mention of the status of the matches.
Moving to Belgium, Pakistan lost the only match there 1-5. The Belgian team was a combination of available national team players and under-21 boys. Again, it was not an international match.
The last leg of the Pakistan hockey team’s tour was in Spain. The series was reduced to two from the originally announced three matches. Pakistan won the first tie 4-1 and, again, PHF created the impression that Pakistan had defeated Spain’s national team in the match. It was Eid day in Pakistan and a news flash appearing on some TV channels read: “The national hockey team’s Eid gift to the nation! Pakistan defeats the much higher-ranked Spain by a big margin.”
When contacted, the Real Federación Española de Hockey, the Spanish Hockey Federation, also clarified that it was not an international match. Since the Spanish Final 4 of their domestic competition was to take place over the weekend, no player from the top four domestic teams — Real Club de Polo, Club de Campo, the Atlètic Terrasa Hockey Club and Club Egara — was available to play against Pakistan. Also absent were some other top Spanish players who were engaged in the Dutch and Belgian leagues.
Hence, it was more or less a third-tier Spanish team, which lost to the Green Shirts. And even that side recovered to defeat Pakistan 5-3 in the second match.
An ‘international’ match with ranking points at stake has a different competitive environment altogether, with pressure on the players, coaches and even umpires.
Now, PHF and its cronies have come out with another defensive strategy. They are saying: “At least the boys got the experience of playing against European sides.”
In this regard, it would have been far better if the international matches were arranged against some lower-ranked European countries, such as Ireland (ranked 14), Wales (15), Austria (19) and Scotland (20). Of these, Ireland, Wales and Scotland are located very close to each other. Only one or two players from these countries were engaged in the big European hockey leagues. In all probability, they would have welcomed the idea to play internationals against a national side in the same ranking bracket as theirs.
The performance of players in these international matches and their results would have given a fair idea about the Pakistan team and the players and where they stand.
Sadly, this European tour, which must have cost millions of rupees, was an exercise in futility. The PHF must be taken to task not only by the ministry of Inter-Provincial Coordination but also by the Public Accounts Committee of the National Assembly.
A former great of Pakistan hockey Olympian Rashid ul Hasan has openly stated that the PHF’s President Khalid Sajjad Khokhar and its Secretary Asif Bajwa have lied and deceived the newly installed government to prolong their own tenure with the federation. The prime minister is, ex officio, the Patron-in-Chief of the PHF. He has the power to remove the PHF president with a stroke of the pen.
Khalid Sajjad Khokhar and Asif Bajwa, responsible for Pakistan hockey’s disaster, are known for ingratiating themselves with those in power. Recently, PHF announced it would hold club championships from May 15-25. The title of this event? The ‘Chief of Army Staff Inter-Club District Hockey Championship’.
The writer is a freelance sports journalist based in Lahore He tweets @IjazChaudhry1
Published in Dawn, EOS, May 15th, 2022