Dutchman Siegfried Aikman is the head coach of the national hockey team since December 2021. During this period, Pakistan has participated in some tournaments with mixed results. Aikman’s task has not been easy due to myriad problems. Eos sat down with the affable coach with roots in the Caribbean country of Suriname to get his candid opinions about where Pakistan hockey is headed. Excerpts from the interview…
Q. How did you come to coaching hockey?
A. I used to play for a club in the third tier of the Dutch League. Coaching fascinated me from the start. I was just 16 when I started training children at my club. Soon, I was doing coaching courses. I gained the top Dutch qualification. Next, it was the FIH courses. Here too, I attained the top qualification. I am a FIH High Performance Senior Coach as well as a FIH Academy Trainer and Educator. I have conducted FIH’s high profile coaching courses. Some of them I carried out with Tayyab Ikram, who is now the FIH president. Many coaches of the top national teams have been my students.
I have been a full time coach since 2017 — four years with the men’s national team of Japan and now Pakistan. I managed to guide the Japanese team to its greatest achievement, winning gold at the 2018 Asian Games.
Q. Then what made you take the assignment with the Pakistan team, which was languishing at the 18th place in world rankings?
A. I was born in 1959. When I was growing up, Pakistan and hockey were almost synonymous, and remained so for a long period. More than the successes, we were enamoured by their artistry. The decline in hockey here makes us sad. It is my earnest desire to see Pakistan reclaim its lost glory in hockey.
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Q. So how has it been so far?
A. My first assignment was the Asian Champions Trophy in Bangladesh in December 2021. I joined the squad just two days before departure and didn’t know anyone. Khawaja Junaid was the team’s head coach. We shared ideas. Pakistan were unlucky in both the semi-final and third place game, losing to Korea 5-6 and India 3-4. My first impression was that the Green Shirts were good in offensive play but there were too many defensive lapses.
Then as head coach, my first assignment was the 2022 Asia Cup in Jakarta, Indonesia. Before that, there was a training tour to Europe but, due to visa problems, I joined that camp late. That was also the first time I realised the selection committee’s role. Though I needed their help at the time, as I only knew a few players whom I had watched in the Junior World Cup and the Asian Champions Trophy, the committee only gave us probables.
Then after looking at them for some days, I selected the team to which the committee made a couple of changes. The matches in Europe that we played in Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain were not official internationals, but still the opposing teams mostly comprised the best available talent including internationals and emerging players.
Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain are ranked among the top six in field hockey. Pakistan won a few games and also lost a few. Our overall performance was encouraging. It gave the boys confidence for the Asia Cup. The event carried great importance, as it offered three World Cup slots along with India, the World Cup hosts.
Q. What happened in the Asia Cup then?
A. Being a professional coach, I normally refrain from blaming luck. But in Jakarta we faced a series of unfortunate events. We only needed a draw against Japan to make it to the semis, but lost 2-3 to them. Pakistan were denied two goals. One netted by Umar Bhutta was not given as another player had collided with the goal keeper. Still, the most talked about was the goal disallowed because Pakistan had 12 players on the ground at the time.
Even after Pakistan had played all the pool games, they still had a chance. India and Pakistan were level on points. India were lucky as the last pool match pitted them against minnows Indonesia and they knew what to do. They won the match by 16 goals to pip Pakistan for the semis on goal difference. And we had to settle for fifth place.
Q. Next were the Commonwealth Games in England. What happened there?
A. At the Commonwealth Games, it was for the first time that, among the 10 teams, we confronted non-Asian teams, including Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, who are part of the Pro League. Only Ghana was ranked below Pakistan. We lost to Australia and New Zealand, but managed to defeat Scotland and drew with South Africa. Though level on points with New Zealand, the goal difference again denied us playing the fifth/sixth position game. Pakistan finished seventh after beating Canada. But the team’s graph was going up.
Q. Then what is stopping Pakistan from going to the top again?
A. Several problems. It had taken some effort to evolve a combination. But then no less than nine of our players joined clubs in the English league and were suddenly unavailable. In addition, a new manager, Saeed Khan, and new coaches Ayaz Mahmood and Usman Shaikh, were brought into the coaches panel. Again, I joined the camp for the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup late due to visa issues. I had developed a good working relationship with the previous support staff, who had helped me implement the game plan. The new coaches, especially Ayaz, maintained that my strategy is unsuitable for Pakistan. He desired an attacking game, but with no structure. He often didn’t come to the camp because of his PIA job. Then the manager Saeed Khan also exceeded his mandate by interfering in coaching matters.
We also had a big issue with our travel expenses. It was unclear if we would even be able to fly to Malaysia. We only came to know about that on the day of the departure. Despite all this, the players performed beyond my expectations. With nine boys making their international debuts, our third position was a fine achievement.
Two weeks later, it was 2022’s last event, the Nations Cup in South Africa. Again, no money in the PHF’s coffers, again uncertainty. Then, when the money arrived, the airline tickets took time. Rankings wise, Pakistan were seventh among the eight competing teams and we finished seventh. The team’s fighting spirit and physical fitness were the two positives to take from there.
At both the Azlan Shah Cup and the Nations Cup, no physiotherapist accompanied the squad. Almost all the teams had two physiotherapists. After a match, 18 players need to recover, requiring 45-60 minute physiotherapy. France and Ireland had come with a support staff of 11. We only had four at the Nations Cup.
Q. What is your next target?
A. The 2023 Asian Games. I have watched the new boys in the last two tournaments. They are talented but lack experience. I want some of the discarded nine to join the team.
Q. What is your overall observation about the Pakistan players?
A. Well, they have good attacking skills and are capable of creating open play chances and earning penalty corners against any opposition. But their defence is weak. They need coaching on modern lines. And it must start from the grassroots. Pakistan should run regular courses at all the levels to make coaches conversant with the latest methods. Look at India, they conducted coaching courses at all the tiers. It paid off and India won an Olympic medal in hockey after four decades. Also, the domestic structure must be revamped. The annual calendar must include a national league plus age group inter-provincial tournaments.
Q. And how are you liking working with the Pakistan Hockey Federation?
A. It is challenging and problems galore plus no salary for eight months. I have made a pledge to improve the performance of the Pakistan team, but my patience has its limits. My family’s expenses are being met through our savings. If not paid in February, I just might quit.
Published in Dawn, EOS, January 15th, 2023