Gold remained synonymous with Pakistan hockey for many years while the game was regarded as a symbol of national pride in international sport. With the passage of time, however, signs of gradual decline emerged which later became alarming and then too tough to control. Today, Pakistan — the former four-time world champions — is not even featuring in the FIH World Cup currently taking place in India, and are languishing at a wretched 17th position in the world rankings.
Pakistan’s global domination in the game started with the 1960 Rome Olympics and continued throughout the 1970s and mid-1980s before the rot set in.
The Bahawalpur-born Samiullah Khan, one of the finest wingers of his era, represented Pakistan from around mid-1970s till 1982 when the greenshirts were the giants of the game. He reckons there are many reasons for the perpetual fall in hockey.
“First and foremost, the present administration (Pakistan Hockey Federation) is not doing its work properly for improving the national game. Whereas in the past, there were very dedicated administrators at the top level like Air Marshal Nur Khan, Lt Gen K.M. Azhar and Air Chief Marshal Farooq Feroze Khan (all PHF presidents), plus Brig Manzoor Atif, Brig Abdul Hamid Hameedi and Col Mudassir Asghar (secretaries) who all proved themselves very productive contributors in our hockey,” Olympian Samiullah, who is now based in Karachi, said in an exclusive interview with Dawn.
“Similarly, the hockey administrators at the lower level were equally devoted,” the 71-year-old, who has two back-to-back World Cup titles (1987 and 1982) to his credit, added. “Moreover, the governments used to take interest in promoting the game.
“Second is the infrastructure which during the 1970s and 80s was very sound. Hockey players from different parts of the country were doing jobs in as many as 17 departments including Wapda, PIA, Customs, Army, Police, KPT and several banks which kept several sports in Pakistan particularly hockey, cricket and squash on solid footing.”
Gradually, Samiullah regretted, the system got derailed resulting in a decline which continues to this day. Privatisation of several organisations, particularly banks, led to the closure of many sports divisions.
“Contrarily, top hockey-playing countries like Australia, Holland, Germany during the past 40 years, and later Belgium (current world champions, second in FIH rankings) kept working on lifting their hockey which helped them succeed in international contests and maintain top four, five positions in global rankings,” he underlined. “Even India which finished a poor 12th at the 1986 World Cup had also made steady progress,” Samiullah, who is the elder brother of Kaleemullah Khan, another gem of Pakistan who played alongside his brother, elaborated.
Responding to a query regarding how much the PHF is responsible for the pathetic position the country presently finds itself in, he said the recent slide started some 10 years ago during the previous PHF regime.
“It all started when Akhtar Rasool was PHF president [from 2013-16]. He experimented by bringing like-minded persons — who had no technical knowledge and love of hockey — at lower level of the game so that he could be re-elected as president for another term. This resulted in the exclusion of genuine hockey-related persons [including players] from the system,” he said.
“Unfortunately, the PHF regime under retired Brig Khalid Sajjad Khokhar (from 2016 to date) continued with the same approach which damaged Pakistan hockey.”
Club hockey has also not been developed on the right lines, he regretted.
“Due to loopholes in the system, genuine clubs are ignored while fake clubs get recognition from the authorities concerned which serve their own interests rather than selflessly promoting the game.”
Do present Pakistan team players meet the physical fitness standards required at the international level?
“Absolutely not. They hugely lack in this area,” he said categorically. When asked how he would compare players’ fitness of his era and today’s, Samiullah said, “One of the main reasons of us keeping top-notch fitness was that we had a strong bench strength which compelled us to do extra effort; whereas in the current era, there are hardly any replacements of top-tier Pakistan players.”
Are sponsors playing their role in patronising Pakistan hockey?
“No. There are almost no sponsors. Still, I believe they can contribute a lot to Pakistan hockey as all major international events around the world, including the ongoing World Cup, are fully sponsored as was the last Champions Trophy [held in 2018],” he said.
“Recently, two national corporate sector organisations sponsored Pakistan’s national team for their international assignments. However, sponsors leave after a short stint only because of Pakistan’s poor ranking (17th); a sustained sponsorship only comes when a team reaches [a] ranking among the world’s top five teams. To overcome this, the government and the PHF need to do sustained work for the next four, five years.”
Answering a question on the Pakistan Hockey Super League, which was given much hype by the Khokhar-led PHF in 2016 but whose inaugural edition was postponed several times, Samiullah reckoned a hockey league in Pakistan would not be viable.
“A hockey league was only held once in Pakistan during the era of Tariq Kirmani when the national team was eighth or ninth in world ranking. To me, a hockey league in our country has no viability unless the national team attains significant rise in world rankings, rather we need to put our own house in order by strengthening our own hockey structure [to get this target],” he insisted.
“We now have around 40 turfs across Pakistan which I think is more than enough to identify and groom our hockey aspirants.”
Published in Dawn, January 15th, 2023