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Restoring grassroot contests vital for Pakistan hockey revival

August 18, 2012

Pakistan possesses a rich history of figuring on the Olympics medal table on nine occasions spanning 36 years at a stretch — from 1956 to 1992 — with an exception when it joined other countries to boycott 1980 Moscow Games due to Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Pakistan’s hockey team were riding on the crest of a wave in 1980 and should have captured gold had they participated in the Moscow extravaganza.

The credit, of course, goes to hockey teams of the yore which scooped eight (3-3-2) of total 10 Olympic medals Pakistan has claimed to date; the other two, both bronze, being fetched by a grappler and a pugilist.

It all started when a hurriedly raised hockey team left for London to compete in the 1948 Games, a few months after gaining independence, where the green-shirts failed to finish on the podium and had to be content with fourth position.

Again Pakistan could not deliver at Helsinki four years later and finished fourth.

Finally, the men in green ended the drought at Melbourne in 1956 where they lost the final to India by a solitary goal to secure silver, their first Olympic medal. The rest is history and reminds the heroics of stalwarts whenever Olympics took place.

But alas it has been two decades now since Pakistan’s national anthem has not been played at Olympics. Hockey is the only sport in which the nation hopes for a medal but the Pakistan Hockey Federation (PHF) officials think otherwise.

This is evident from the fact that team manager and chief coach Akhtar Rasool made a laugh of himself when he said Pakistan was preparing for 2014 World Cup besides expressing ‘satisfaction’ over his team’s performance.

Contrary to Akhtar’s statement, Pakistan’s graph has gone down considerably as far as Olympics are concerned as the country secured its last medal, a bronze, at Barcelona in 1992. The three-time Olympic champions finished sixth at Atlanta in 1996, fourth at Sydney in 2000, fifth at Athens in 2004, eighth at Beijing in 2008 and seventh in London.

One should accept the fact that Pakistan’s performance has more or less remained stagnant and restricted itself by playing classification matches for 5-8 positions. Thanks to victory at the 2010 Guangzhou Asian Games, the only significant achievement the present PHF set-up can feel proud of, as the team earned a direct ticket for London Games.

It is pertinent to mention that Pakistan had once gone through the agony by featuring in qualifiers at Osaka to earn passage for the Sydney Games.

The writing was on the wall well before the team flew to London and became further visible when after they lost both the practice games – 0-2 to Belgium and 1-5 to the Netherlands. Earlier in the Azlan Shah Cup, Pakistan suffered humiliation by finishing at the bottom among seven teams.

Even after two years in office, the PHF hierarchy miserably failed to raise a winning combination for the 2010 World Cup and Commonwealth Games, both held in New Delhi. At the World Cup, qualifiers Pakistan created history by finishing last in the 12-team competition losing 2-3 to minnows Canada in classification match for 11-12 places. This reminds us of the 1986 World Cup debacle where the two former world giants — Pakistan and India — fought in a playoff for 11-12 places and the former won to avoid last place. Earlier, Pakistan travelled to France in 2009 to feature in World Cup qualifiers at Lille where they returned victorious but surprisingly lost a game to Poland 2-3.

At the Commonwealth Games, Pakistan, however, improved to some extent securing sixth position.

What continues to trouble Pakistan hockey? Despite the fact that the government opened its coffers and doled out unprecedented finances (Rs120 million special grant given by the then prime minister in September 2009) to the PHF during the last four years, the performance left much to be desired. The PHF also hired services of Dutch coach Michel van den Heuvel whose contract was, however, terminated in the midst.

“The bottom-line of hockey’s falling standard is complete abolishment of all-Pakistan tournaments and club hockey across the country,” says Shabih Abbas, who has served as director sports of famous Habib Public School for over four decades.

It was his passion for the game that from school he used to go straight to YMCA in the evening to supervise practice of its hockey team, a job he had done for almost 30 years from 1976 voluntarily and in the process gave Pakistan three Olympian goalkeepers including two captains — Shahid Ali Khan, Mansoor Ahmed and Ahmed Alam. His list, among others, includes custodian Ejaz Khokhar and spearhead Mumtaz Haider.

Unfortunately, the process came to an abrupt end following litigation in YMCA where marriages are a regular feature nowadays in front of Governor’s house.

Shabih is neither an Olympian nor international but has the knack for the game and those who have an eye-witness account will second his devotion.

Gojra, a city in Punjab, is another home of hockey players which used to provide a number of players to the Pakistan hockey team.

It could have been wise had the PHF involved such people by forming a panel of coaches in their respective city of residence on yearly contract and equally distributing the perks which is given to a foreign coach.

We don’t hear about an all-Pakistan tournament or club hockey activities these days which was the hallmark of Pakistan hockey in the past.

The exercise, if given a serious thought by those who matter, will throw up heaps of talent and help raise three-tiers which is vital for the revival of game.