VOLLEYBALL: WHEN HOPE SPIKES

Published August 14, 2022
Photos courtesy: Pakistan Volleyball Federation
Photos courtesy: Pakistan Volleyball Federation

Football may be the most followed sport in the world but a majority of estimates put volleyball as the most widely played sport in the world. The international governing body of the association of football, FIFA, has 211 national associations as its members, while the Fédération Internationale de Volleyball, FIVB, has 220.

Perhaps the cheapest team sport, volleyball is popular in Pakistan as well. Occasionally we come across volleyball being played in the parks and grounds of our big cities but it enjoys huge popularity in small towns and villages across the country.

The national volleyball team has also achieved some good results on the Asian scene. Pakistan won bronze in the 1962 Asian Games played in Jakarta, Indonesia. The country’s best show came in 1989 at the Asian Volleyball Championships in Seoul, South Korea, when Pakistan surprised many by finishing fourth in a highly competitive field.

At present, the Pakistan volleyball team is ranked seventh out of 64 in Asia and 46th out of 220 in the world. Even today, Pakistan on its day can surprise any of the top-ranked Asian teams.

The captain of the national volleyball team is the world-class player from Swat, Aimal Khan, and he has high hopes for the sport in Pakistan

If we talk about team games, the national volleyball team’s international achievements are third only to hockey and cricket. And it is not a distant third if an important factor is taken into consideration. Only 12 countries are full members of the International Cricket Council (ICC). There are 137 member countries of the International Hockey Federation (FIH) but only around 25 of them can claim to have a reasonable game structure and player base. On the contrary, most members of the FIVB have a proper domestic structure with leagues and a large pool of active players.

Presently, the biggest volleyball star in Pakistan is Aimal Khan, the captain of the national team. The handsome Pukhtoon from the picturesque Swat valley stands at a towering 6 feet and 7 inches.

“Volleyball is the most popular sport in our area,” Aimal Khan tells Eos.

“Two of my uncles have represented Khyber Pakhtunkhwa at the national level. I myself started playing at a very early age.”

Aimal Khan in action
Aimal Khan in action

At age 18, Aimal was selected in the KP team for the 2008 national championships. That team surprised some formidable departmental outfits to finish fourth. And Aimal’s stellar performance gained him a spot in the Pakistan team for the Asian Junior Championships in Tehran the same year. Here, too, he made a significant contribution towards Pakistan winning the bronze medal, the country’s first-ever medal in the competition.

Unfortunately, terrorism hit Swat around this time and it affected Aimal badly. “I lost many of my family members in the violence and we left Swat for Islamabad in 2009.

But the family returned to Swat after seven months in Islamabad,” says Aimal.

Meanwhile, he had been picked by Wapda, one of the strongest teams on the domestic sports scene. “Initially, I was on contract with Wapda but, then, after I represented them for two years, they made me a permanent employee in 2010,” he says.

Since then, he has been an automatic selection in the Pakistan team. “During these 12 years, the major tournaments that I have appeared in include three Asian Games, four Asian Championships, the Olympics and the World Cup qualifiers. In the three Asiads in which I participated, Pakistan’s best finish was eighth. That was at the last edition in 2018.

“At the Asian Championships, we finished seventh thrice. At the 2019 Asian Championships, I also earned the distinction of being the top scorer of the event. Pakistan almost made it to the semi-finals there, but we lost to Australia [the eventual runner-up] 2-3 in the quarter-finals after leading by 2-0. It was also my first event as the captain of the national side,” he says.

Aimal has been the captain of the Pakistan team since 2019. He is also leading the national side at the Islamic Solidarity Games under way in the Turkish city of Konya since August 9. “I am very hopeful to see the Pakistan volleyball team on the podium there,” Aimal says.

The exceptional talent has been widely acknowledged by scouts outside the country, too. Pakistan volleyball’s pride has plied his trade in no less than nine countries. “In 2013, just three years after my international debut, I received offers from foreign clubs to join them. Since then, I have played for top clubs in the top tier leagues of Oman, the Chinese Taipei, UAE, Maldives, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Thailand, Turkey and Indonesia,” he beams.

Aimal not only helped his clubs win laurels, he also achieved individual distinctions. “I can tell you with pride that mostly the clubs I played for were winners or the runners-up. In 2018-19, I was declared the best opposite spiker in the Qatari league. In the 2019-20 I was the top scorer for the Thai league,” he informs Eos.

Having won medals at the Olympics and the World Cup, Serbia is a leading volleyball playing nation. “In 2019, the Serbian club Novi Pazar contacted me. They wanted an immediate replacement for an injured star player. Sadly, Serbia doesn’t have an embassy in Pakistan. The visa process lingered on and Novi Pazar had to look somewhere else.”

It might be news to many Pakistanis that Aimal’s per season salary in the foreign leagues has ranged from US$20,000 to US$50,000. So cricketers are not the only rich sportspersons in this country.

Aimal laughingly denies that he switches clubs because of financial reasons. “I move and change clubs primarily to get better competition. And throughout, national duty has remained my priority. There has been a binding clause in all my overseas contacts that I shall be released from club duty whenever needed to play for Pakistan,” he points out.

Apart from foreign clubs, Aimal has also helped his domestic side in Pakistan win an honour. “At the 2018 Asian Club Championships in Myanmar, Wapda surprised everyone by winning the bronze medal, after narrowly losing the semi-final 2-3 to a Kazakhstan club. Sadly, our financial constraints have come in the way of any other participation by some Pakistani sides at the Asian Club Championships,” he says.

It seems the Pakistani players will no longer need to look overseas to play. A few months ago, the Pakistan Volleyball Federation’s chairman, Chaudhry Yaqoob, signed a sponsorship deal with Engro Corporation to organise the first National Volleyball Super League.

According to Aimal this was the missing link in Pakistan volleyball. “The franchise-based league akin to cricket’s PSL with foreign players participating will be extremely beneficial to Pakistan volleyball in many ways.

“Franchises would scout talent from all over the country. The association of the general public with city-based teams and the media’s involvement will further enhance the popularity of volleyball, to make it a glamorous sport in our country. I hope to see big crowds as in the leagues abroad. You know, in Chinese Taipei, Thailand and Indonesia, sometimes the stadium capacity falls short in accommodating the spectators,” Aimal points out.

“Apart from the players making good money, the highly competitive league would sharpen their skills. Thus the Pakistan volleyball team will get good battle-hardened players. I am confident that, within two to three years of the league’s inception, Pakistan will be a definite medal contender at Asian events — we have already been beating the top-ranked Asian sides, though not regularly. We could also aspire to qualify for the Olympics and the World Cup,” he adds.

“Here, I also suggest that the venues for leagues should not be far from the towns where volleyball has more fan following,” he points out.

The writer is a freelance sports journalist based in Lahore. He tweets @ijazChaudhry1 Email: ijaz62@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, August 14th, 2022

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