HOCKEY: OUT OF PLAY

Published June 5, 2022
The Pakistan hockey team at the Asia Cup in Jakarta: a steady decline in the national sport
The Pakistan hockey team at the Asia Cup in Jakarta: a steady decline in the national sport

The 11th Asia Cup hockey tournament in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta had dual importance. On the one hand, the quadrennial event is a title tournament, as it decides the Asian champions for the next four years. On the other, it also serves as the qualifier for the next World Cup.

With the number of competing teams increased to 16 at the last Hockey World Cup in 2018, the quota for Asia had also been enhanced: three teams plus the 2023 World Cup hosts India would make it from this tournament into the World Cup. Pakistan, three-time winner of the Asia Cup, had only once failed to reach the podium in the last 10 editions of the Asia Cup — in 2007. But we managed it yet again.

Leave aside reaching the podium, Pakistan was expected to qualify for the World Cup at least. For that they had to reach the Super Four by finishing among the top two in their pool. The other three teams in Pakistan’s pool were India, Japan and, the weakest side in the competition, hosts Indonesia. It did not manage to do that either.

The Pakistan Hockey Fedeation (PHF) has been giving the impression that the Pakistan team that participated in the Asia Cup was very young and inexperienced. That is a barefaced lie. Of the eight competing sides, Pakistan had, in fact, fielded the most experienced team. There were some youngsters in the squad, but most of the first choice XI players have been active in international hockey for a long time — Captain Umar Bhutta since 2010, Ali Shan since 2011, Ammad Shakeel Butt since 2013, Ajaz Ahmad since 2016, Abu Bakar Mehmood and Mubashar Ali since 2017 and Junaid Manzoor since 2018.

The Pakistan hockey team has managed to dash the hopes of the nation again by failing to even make it to the Super Four round of the Asia Cup, thus failing also to qualify for the next Hockey World Cup. What is really going on within the Pakistan Hockey Federation?

On the other hand, India had fielded their second string, because the first string team was engaged in FIH’s flagship event, the Pro League. With their World Cup berth secure as the hosts, India had entered an entirely different squad at the Asia Cup. And university students comprised 90 percent of Japan’s squad.

All this made Pakistan’s task easier. The opening tie was against India, whose 18-member squad included some experienced players but 11 players had a total of only 22 caps between themselves. The Green Shirts were expected to win but were surprised by ‘India B’, who took the lead in the eighth minute and had more ball possession throughout. Pakistan were lucky to get an equaliser in the dying minutes.

After a 13-0 win against Indonesia, the whipping boys of the tourney, Pakistan only needed a draw in the last pool game against Japan. But, after an entertaining battle, Pakistan went down 2-3, thus failing to reach the Super Four round. With that they also missed the bus for the 2023 World Cup.

A very bizarre incident occurred during the match against Japan. Pakistan’s captain Umar Bhutta had scored with a top-of-the-circle shot to make the score 3-3. But the goal was disallowed as there were 12 Pakistani players on the field at the time. It was a sheer failure of management. Team manager Khawaja Junaid, who has enjoyed several stints since the turn of the millennium as coach/manager of the national team and the Pakistan junior sides, tried to pass the blame for this on to Pakistan’s Dutch head coach Siegfried Aikman.

The World Cup omission is tragic. It was Pakistan that floated the idea of a Hockey World Cup in the late 1960s. Pakistan also presented the magnificent World Cup trophy. More importantly, Pakistan has won the World Cup four times, more than any other nation. It is only the second time the former giants of hockey couldn’t make it to the World Cup.

In 2014, when they first failed, there were 12 slots. Pakistan also didn’t qualify for the last two Olympics, again with only 12 places to compete for. This is the first time that Pakistan couldn’t get a place in a 16-team global event — another dubious distinction achieved by the present PHF top brass led since 2016 by Brigadier (retd) Khalid Sajjad Khokhar, with Asif Bajwa coming in as the secretary in early 2019.

As always, Asif Bajwa has come out with the most absurd statements: “Pakistan gave an impressive performance. The improvement means the team will do better in future. We will assess the strengths and weaknesses seen here.”

Title events such as the Asia Cup are not meant for assessments or improvements. They are litmus tests. Here, only results matter. More so with the place in the World Cup at stake. Failure to reach the victory stand plus the non-qualification for the World Cup can only be termed a disaster.

It was only a few weeks ago when the Algerian Football Federation (AFF) President Sharafeddine Emara resigned after his country narrowly failed to qualify for the 2022 World Cup. Not only the AFF President Emara but the entire board also resigned following the Algerian defeat against Cameroon — even though Algeria has appeared only four times in 21 editions of the World Cup, and only once reached the second round. Compare this with Pakistan’s legacy at the hockey World Cup. But perhaps Algerian football administrators have more sense of shame.

During Khokhar’s regime, the Pakistan hockey team’s world ranking has fallen from 10th to 18th and Pakistan also failed to qualify for the 2020 Olympics.

The PHF had earlier bragged about managing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup after failing to do so at the previous edition in 2014. But Pakistan’s qualification for the 2018 World Cup was entirely down to the FIH’s decision to increase the number of participating teams from 12 to 16. And how did Pakistan fare at the 2018 World Cup? The Green Shirts finished 12th, thus equalling their worst-ever finish. They scored just two goals, their lowest World Cup tally, with a goal difference of 10 from their previous worst.

In the 2018 Asian Games, Pakistan ended up fourth, equalling their worst-ever position at the Asian Games. They also failed to qualify for the Youth Olympics for the first time, after finishing a miserable sixth in the qualifiers in 2018. There they also suffered a 1-12 defeat against Malaysia.

Pakistan’s worst-ever defeat in international hockey, a 1-9 loss to Australia in November 2017 also happened under Khokhar. Their worst-ever defeat against India was 1-7 in 2017 at the Hockey World League in London, followed by another humiliation against the same team by 1-6 in the same event, a few days later. And now there is the failure to qualify for the 2023 World Cup.

Asif Bajwa has mentioned that the PHF plans to reinvigorate Pakistan hockey by establishing a centre of excellence and by launching a professional league. We have been hearing about the same since 2017. The PHF has also announced a three-member probe committee to look into the reasons for the team’s failure at the Asia Cup. The committee comprises former captains Kaleemullah and Nasir Ali, both current members of the national selection committee. The third member is another PHF favourite, Zahir Shah of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Unfortunately, all this is likely to be nothing more than an eyewash to fool the general public and the powers that be.

The only remedy is the immediate sacking of PHF supremos Khalid Sajjad Khokhar and Asif Bajwa; enough is enough. Their replacements should be people with proven credentials to actually reinvigorate domestic hockey and the ability to turn PHF into a corporate body that is not dependent on grants from the federal and provincial governments.

The writer is a freelance sports journalist based in Lahore.

He tweets @IjazChaudhry1

Email: ijaz62@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 5th, 2022

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