The Pakistan hockey team finished third in the recently concluded 29th edition of the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, a non-title invitational hockey tournament. The event has been hosted in Ipoh, Malaysia, since 1983.
The Pakistan Hockey Federation (PHF) and its cronies, including some former stalwarts, always on the lookout for some assignment from the PHF, are overjoyed at this result. They are going around announcing that Pakistan reaching the victory stand after a long time signals Pakistan hockey’s revival. This is hogwash.
The 2022 edition of the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup saw four Asian and two African teams competing. There was not a single side from Europe, hockey’s power base. The highest-ranked team was the host Malaysia (ranked 10th in the world). Winning the tournament for the first time, the hosts also benefitted from the absence of strong sides.
Never in the history of this tournament has the field been so poor. This is because the top nine teams were busy with the International Hockey Federation’s (FIH) flagship event, the FIH Pro League.
Following the Pakistan hockey team’s victory at the recently concluded Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, the top brass of the PHF is claiming the team is on its way to recapturing its past glory. This is very far from the truth
The PHF has also been emphasising that the team at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup had nine new players, as several established members of the national team had preferred playing in English hockey league clubs over the national team. The same holds true for almost all the sides, which featured there because such minor non-title tournaments are usually used by national federations to try out new players.
Malaysia, Korea and Japan only had five to six first-choice players in their squads. South Africa, who finished a very creditable fourth at this year’s Commonwealth Games, had not a single player from that team present at Ipoh. Almost all of their players, too, are playing in top European leagues.
The PHF has labelled the nine Pakistani internationals playing in the English league as mercenaries, who preferred money over the national cause. Citing financial reasons for their non-availability, only two of the nine, Ammad Shakeel Butt and Mubashar Ali, had sent in their resignations to the PHF. The other seven had actually made themselves available for the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup.
When contacted by Eos, some of the players, who prefer to stay anonymous, say that they proceeded to England only after getting a No Objection Certificate from the PHF. They also say that, even after being granted leave, they received a strange message from the PHF on September 30, asking them why they had left the country and if they were ready to play for Pakistan at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup.
All players with whom Eos spoke said that, even though they wanted to earn some extra money for themselves and their families, Pakistan would always remain their number one priority, as the foreign league came second to them. They even offered to join the camp for the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, scheduled to be played from November 1 to 10, on October 16. But the players did not get a reply. Two of the players even sent voice messages to the PHF President and Secretary but still received no reply.
This is not so out of the ordinary. The biggest single sports event on the planet, the FIFA World Cup, is set to commence today. Barring Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the other 30 teams include players appearing in various European leagues this season; in some cases it’s their entire squads. Almost all the European leagues have gone on a World Cup break seven to eight days earlier. Thus the national teams’ full squads assembled only a week before the opening of the mega quadrennial event.
Meanwhile, the PHF, which has failed to initiate a franchise-based hockey league in the country in spite of repeated announcements since 2016, is reluctant to let Pakistani hockey players earn some money even though these players are always willing to represent their country as their priority.
As always, the PHF is trying to cash in on Pakistan’s “grand achievement” at Azlan Shah. Its information, rather disinformation, cell revealed that Pakistan won a medal at the tournament after a long gap of 11 years. Of course, it failed to mention that, during this period of 11 years, Pakistan appeared in the event only three times, in 2012, 2013 and 2016. Yes, they failed to reach the podium in these editions but then three to four top-ranked countries presently featuring in the Pro League, participated in the Azlan Shah Cup in those three editions.
The PHF President Khalid Sajjad Khokhar, a past master in duping the powers that be, has made the prime minister of Pakistan believe that the Green Shirts’ show at the Azlan Shah Cup is an indication of the revival of the national game. PM Shehbaz Sharif applauded and congratulated the team and the entire nation on the feat. This is the same PM who had recently advised Pakistan’s 2022 Commonwealth Games gold medalists to strive for the non-existent ‘platinum medal’.
PHF also has another piece of news, that the third position has helped Pakistan climb to the 17th spot from 18th in FIH rankings. Some have termed it the first step back to the top. It must be pointed out here that it was during the incumbent Khokhar’s disastrous tenure, which started in 2015, that Pakistan’s world ranking in hockey fell from 10th to 18th.
The gap between the lower rung sides and the top six to eight sides is widening. Pakistan might climb up a place or two in rankings, but we can’t aspire to rejoin the top tier of international hockey given the present state of the domestic hockey structure here.
Siegfried Aikman, the Pakistan team’s Dutch head coach, might be doing his job professionally, certainly better than any of the local coaches in recent times, but he needs the wherewithal, in this case the players. Again, the boys might be talented, as Pakistanis are regarded as natural hockey players, but the shambolic domestic structure of Pakistan hockey can’t prepare them for the top international competition of today.
Meanwhile, European nations dominate world rankings, with five figuring among the top eight. This is primarily due to the strong national leagues of countries such as the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany. The players from other European countries also polish their skills by plying their trade in these highly competitive and well-organised leagues. Several players from the first-ranked Australia and the seventh-ranked Argentina also have contracts with the European clubs.
All this implies that Pakistan hockey requires a city-based franchise hockey league on the pattern of cricket’s Pakistan Super League. This is beyond the capacity of the sitting president and the secretary of the PHF.
As soon as the team returned from Malaysia, the PHF Secretary Haider Hussain again stretched out the begging bowl before the government. He has announced that the PHF needs an immediate grant of Rs 30 million from the federal government to ensure the national team’s participation in the FIH Nations Cup, starting in South Africa later this month.
A professionally organised and properly marketed hockey league would lure sponsors and generate enough income for the PHF to extricate itself from its financial woes as well.
The writer is a freelance sports journalist based in Lahore.
He tweets @IjazChaudhry1
Published in Dawn, EOS, November 20th, 2022