The only consolation for Pakistan hockey in the dismal year 2013 was that they retained the Asian Champions Trophy title after defeating Japan in the final at Kakamigahara in Japan in November. Defending champions Pakistan had enjoyed a smooth campaign as they defeated Oman (8-0), China (5-1) and Malaysia (1-0) before facing a challenging task against India. However, their archrivals were pipped 5-4 as the Greenshirts successfully booked their berth in the final and later defended the title. That was the sum of our ‘achievements’ in a sport in which once we were the top dogs in the world.
But what shocked and dismayed all and sundry was when for the first time in the history of hockey, Pakistan, four times world champions, failed to qualify for the World Cup 2014. Pakistan’s hopes were dashed when they were beaten 2-1 by South Korea in the semi-final of the 9th Asia Cup in Ipoh, Malaysia in August. It will be the first time in 42 years that Pakistan hockey will not be seen in action in the World Cup 2014 to be held in the Netherlands. Pakistan won the inaugural competition in 1971 and triumphed again in 1978, 1982 and 1994. Former Olympians termed it the ‘darkest day’ in Pakistan’s sporting history, and they were very much right in their observation. It has now become clear even to the most partisan of their supporters that Pakistan hockey is indeed headed nowhere other than the dumps.
Prior to the Asia Cup, the World Hockey League (WHL), also in Malaysia, gave a golden opportunity to three-time Olympic gold medallists Pakistan. This qualifying competition was handing out three slots for the World Cup 2014, but South Korea outplayed Pakistan 4-3 in the quarter-finals. No doubt, this World Cup qualification failure was a national tragedy for a country that remained up in the clouds for more than three decades. Throughout the year, more often the results had been embarrassing to say the least with the Greenshirts struggling to win against second tier teams.
A multitude of sins in management, selection and coaching always got covered up through one cliché or the other. Ignored were the slips in the selection and the secretive manipulation that go behind the scenes for personal gains and self-aggrandisment, with constructive criticism always a poor second to the waving of the flag. The statements given by the Pakistan Hockey Federation (PHF) top officials in the national media after the team’s insipid performances were aimed at to make people believe that the national outfit were doing well, and that there was light at the end of the tunnel. The fact was that the way things were being conducted, the days ahead were anything but that.
What more disturbing and mind-boggling was that the PHF defied the Olympic Charter shamelessly and failed to enter the Commonwealth Games 2014 by the deadline by siding with an unlawful and unconstitutional National Olympic Committee, and resultantly the Greenshirts were out of the Glasgow Games 2014. And this happened barely after a month after the Greenshirts failed to qualify for the FIH World Cup 2014. Although Pakistan would be sending athletes to compete in other sports at the Commonwealth Games 2014, the PHF ignored the International Olympic Committee-backed National Olympic Committee, headed by Lt Gen (r) Syed Arif Hasan, because it relied heavily on the state-run Pakistan Sports Board (PSB) and consequently showed no interest in sending an entry to Glasgow 2014.
The Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) had given Pakistan an additional month beyond the original August 16 deadline to submit an entry but the Pakistan Olympic Committee (POA) did not receive the required assurances from the PHF to submit an application. Unfortunately common sense did not prevail. The POA did everything they could to get the PHF to work with them but it simply did not happen. Pakistan finished sixth at the last Commonwealth Games held in Delhi in 2010, while their best ever finish was a silver medal at Melbourne 2006 Games.
Pakistan hockey stars withdrawn from India League: The year did not start on a good note for Pakistan as their nine players were withdrawn from a new Hockey India League (HIL) and told to go back home in the wake of protests following border tension between the archrivals in January. None of the Pakistan players featured in the opening match of the HIL in New Delhi. The 34-match HIL, sanctioned by the sport’s world governing body – FIH– featured top stars from around the world playing for five city-based franchises till February 10.
India cancels hockey series with Pakistan: In March, India cancelled the bilateral hockey series with Pakistan slated for April-May. Both Hockey India (HI) and the PHF had planned a two-legged bilateral series after seven years. Pakistan were scheduled to play a five-match series in India April 5-15. India were then slated to tour the neighbours for the second leg of the series, also comprising five matches, from April 23.
Poor performance at Sultan Azlan Shah Cup: Pakistan participated in the six-nation Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in Malaysia in March and gave very poor performance. India defeated Pakistan 4-2 in Ipoh to take the fifth spot. Like the previous year 2012, Pakistan finished last in the tournament.
Pakistan slip to eighth in world rankings: After a disappointing performance at the World Hockey League, Pakistan plunged to eighth in FIH rankings released in July. Pakistan, who were placed sixth in the previous ranking, slipped two places after the national team finished seventh in the World Hockey League.
PHF secretary Asif Bajwa quits: In September, PHF secretary general Mohammad Asif Bajwa resigned from his post while federation’s president Qasim Zia and head coach Akhtar Rasool preferred to hold on to their posts despite their poor performance at the office during the past five years. Bajwa tendered his resignation at the PHF executive board meeting. The PHF president accepted the secretary’s resignation and immediately announced Rana Mujahid as his replacement till the completion of the elections process of the national federation. Bajwa told media that during his five-year tenure he tried his best to bring back the lost glory of national hockey. However, Bajwa neither elaborated upon the reasons behind his decision to resign nor did he mention the series of setbacks and failures during his tenure which include the Pakistan team’s miserable showing in the 2010 World Cup where they finished 12th out of 12 teams and their ordinary faring in the London 2012 Games where they ended up a poor seventh. Pakistan also squandered the opportunity of qualifying for the World Cup in the World Hockey League in Malaysia where they again ended up at 7th spot. And the last straw was the team’s failure to qualify for the World Cup 2014 when they fell short of lifting the Asia Cup in Malaysia.
Head coach Akhtar also resigns over failures: Following Bajwa’s footsteps, head coach Akhtar also resigned from his post over the failures of the national team. Akhtar, who had been the coach for over a year, said he had tendered his resignation after consulting his friends. Akhtar miserably failed to inculcate self-belief and optimism in the national players. The hockey great, who had left hockey since long and doesn’t have any know how about the modern day hockey, raised many an eyebrow when he took over the coaching assignment. Akhtar was never in a good physical condition and lacked the agility of the modern day coaches and managers who were involved with the players throughout the match as well as practice and strategising sessions.
Election of new PHF management: At the fag end of the year, the PHF saw a complete overhaul in its administrative set-up. With PHF president Qasim Zia deciding not to contest the elections, former Olympians Akhtar and Mujahid were elected unopposed as president and secretary general of the PHF for a term of four years. As no individuals, except Akhtar and Mujahid, had filed the nomination papers to contest election for the covted posts, they were elected unopposed. As no competition in the elections was witnessed, prominent former Olympians like Islahuddin Siddiqui, Shahnaz Sheikh, Samiullah Khan along with others had termed the PHF elections bogus.
Pakistan finish poor ninth at Junior World Cup: Pakistan finished poor ninth at the Junior World Cup played in India in December. A below-par India lost to Pakistan via tie-breaker to finish 10th. India managed to draw the match beyond the regulation period with a 1-1 score line. Pakistan prevailed 4-2 in the penalty shootouts. Germany won the Junior World Cup after they defeated underdogs France in the final 5-2. The Netherlands defeated Malaysia 5-1 for bronze medal.
Former Olympians protest slump in hockey: In the third week of December, former Pakistan hockey Olympians protested in front of Parliament in Islamabad in a desperate bid to revive the former world-beating country’s struggling fortunes. They demonstrated in the hope that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif would step in and help reverse the team’s decline. “We thought of staging a protest at the Parliament because this is the place where our voices can reach Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif,” said Shahnaz Sheikh, a member of Pakistan’s 1978 World Cup winning team. “We will protest again early next month at the parliament and continue until the Prime Minister addresses the situation,” he added. “The federation officials are politicised ... hockey should be free from politics,” said Sami Ullah. “It is high time that we save our national game and we request the Prime Minister to take stringent measures to restore the pride in the game,” said Sami.
Not much hope in 2014: No sporting federation is a bed of roses, especially one that carries the aspirations of the nation. In Pakistan hockey, one is witnessing that whenever the Greenshirts lose a tournament, an unwarranted overhaul takes place and merit runs poor second to personal whims. One is surprised to observe that the PHF ignores the fact that the change of command in no way promises success, planning does. But we are not a nation of sage souls. Rather we indulge in thoughtless decisions. If changing a manager or a coach after every defeat or bad performance had been the best remedy, Pakistan would have been champions. Unfortunately, the technical understanding of issues is always ignored, and it triggers a rot.
Despite all the available resources and hefty funds in the last one year, the PHF failed to put hockey back on track and get the desired results. Pakistanis have an emotional connection with hockey; the older generation still talks and recall with great delight the spellbinding achievements of the past. While the present generation only has tales of the past to live on. Their love or connection with hockey is only going to be strengthened when they actually see the return of the lost glory.
The need of the hour is to bring Pakistan hockey into line with the rest, best and the latest aspects of modern hockey as the game has changed a lot in recent years. Even the best of players cannot win without strategic strength as all team games need to have excellent preemptive and offensive strategies worked out scientifically. And for that we need those persons at the helm of affairs who are thorough professionals with solution to the predicament. Only then the elusive triumphs will replace the current tragedies that demean the team once basking in Olympic golds and world crowns.
But with the game of musical chairs in the national federation, the future looks not that bright. That face-saving victory in Japan aside, the year 2013 was a most forgetful year for Pakistan hockey. What is worse, it seems to be on an irrevocable downward slide. And realistically speaking, one should not harbour any hopes of the national team doing any better or revive themselves to their former glory in 2014.
(The writer is Sports Editor at Daily Times. He can be reached at email@example.com)
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