LAHORE: Pakistan became a force to be reckoned with in field hockey after 1947. It was rightly declared our national sport when we emerged as champions at all major international events. Back then, pictures, posters and interviews of our hockey stars outnumbered those of cricketers. Good was not a good enough adjective for Pakistan hockey in those days. Exceptional, phenomenal and magnificent were the adjectives Pakistan used to find before their name when the world was talking about field hockey once. Hockey, having the most decorated history in the sports-book of Pakistan, is nowhere close its former glory at present. It is lamentable that a country with three Olympic golds, four World Cup titles, three Asia Cup crowns, winners of Asian Games gold record eight times, winners of Asian Champions Trophy gold twice, winners of FIH Champions Trophy gold thrice and remained unbeatable at regional level for many years have become one of the lowest teams in the world: 18th in FIH rankings. Since the 1994 World Cup victory, the state of the game in Pakistan has not only plummeted because of the green shirts, it has had a hard landing. Pakistan not only missed the World Cup 2018 but also the last two Olympics: Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020. The wounds are still fresh. What more disturbing is that the crippling financial state of the sport has finally struck a killer blow to the country’s national game.
Such has been the state of Pakistan hockey over the past two decades that it came as no shock to all and sundry when the team failed to qualify for mega events like the Olympics and World Cup. In an exclusive interview with Daily Times, Pakistan Hockey Federation Secretary General Muhammad Asif Bajwa has shown confidence and optimism regarding Pakistan hockey: “All is not lost and there is still hope.” He says the national team’s performance will not improve without featuring in maximum international events while adding that the government patronage is essential to help Pakistan regain their standing in the global game. “Today if you want to progress in hockey and remain at the top, a lot of money is required.” He added that there were a number of reasons for hockey’s decline in Pakistan but to be in the top five teams Pakistan needed to play at least 25 to 30 international games a year.
It is unfortunate that Pakistan hockey structure lacks in terms of skills and competitiveness. The very base of the game has shrunk beyond belief. Pakistan hockey’s slump is not quite as dramatic or sudden as it now seems to be. It’s been a slow and painful decline. Cricket, with better financial rewards and glamour, slowly replaced hockey in schools and colleges. Moreover, the majority of schools and clubs in Pakistan are not willing to invest in hockey because of low turnover of the team in recent decades. For the last two decades, the government has done nothing seriously for promotion of the national sport of the country but wants results. To remain consistent, Pakistan hockey needs improvement all over at every tier of the game to show an upward graph.
Asif Bajwa is of the view that only a long term, mammoth campaign can revive Pakistan hockey and believes that the present management, under the leadership of PHF President Brig Khalid Sajjad Khokkar, are up to the task. “Hockey has been eliminated from the grassroots level in our country. Apart from a few pockets here and there you won’t see any youngsters playing hockey in the grounds, parks or streets like they used to do in the past. In those days our Education Minister who also held the portfolio of sports would make sure that schools and colleges all over the country will form their hockey teams and will play regularly. But today there is no emphasis on holding hockey matches at the school and college level. I don’t think that we can achieve much in hockey if this situation doesn’t change. We will have to make sure that as many educational institutions as possible are made active in hockey. With the support of the government, the Pakistan Hockey Federation will go all out to launch a campaign to make sure that we revive our hockey at the grassroots level. This cannot be one off. I mean sport has to be a continuous process which is why we will come out with a feasible and lasting plan for the revival of our hockey at the school and college level,” he maintained.
The big question is: would Pakistan be able to turn things around? Asif Bajwa is very hopeful that Pakistan hockey can turn their fortunes around. “If Belgium can do it, why can’t Pakistan? Belgium won their first Olympic medal in 1920. Then they took 96 years to win the next one at the Olympic Games. Like Pakistan, they ranked 18th twelve years ago. In those 12 years since then, Belgium have won two Olympic medals (gold 2020 and silver 2016), World Cup title (2018) and European Championship crown (2019). Perhaps a comparison with India is more relevant to Pakistan. After 2010, India took a professional and scientific approach and, more importantly, accepted what was wrong and corrected it. That change paved the way for them to return to the Olympic podium (bronze) at the Tokyo Olympics 2020.” He said that all stake holders needed to sit down and take a long, hard look at what went wrong with Pakistan hockey.
The legends that took Pakistan to glory in the past have also been accused of selfish behaviour by many analysts. Our former Olympians continuously opposed appointments of foreign coaches but when they got opportunities to coach the national team, they failed repeatedly. Our failure to adapt with modern hockey has affected us a lot. Foreign coaches were hired to help Pakistan adapt with modern hockey but they did not get enough time due to opposition from former players. To improve and modernize Pakistan hockey, the PHF has recently hired the services of Dutch coach Siegfried Aikman, who led Japan to gold at the 2018 Asian Games. Aikman has been given a five-year contract. Asif Bajwa said at the moment Aikman doesn’t know much about the Pakistan players and also had brief discussions with them but he would be preparing long term and short term plans for Pakistan hockey. Pakistan has in the past had foreign coaches but profile wise they were in a higher league than Aikman. Under Hans Jorristsma, the Dutch coach, Pakistan won the World Cup and the Champions Trophy in 1994. Roelant Oltmans also guided the national side. Dutch coach Michel van den Heuvel helped Pakistan won Asian Games 2010 gold in China after 20 years.
While giving example of neighbours India, Asif Bajwa said India was doing a lot for hockey. “And plus they have aligned their structure on modern lines. The key to success in hockey today is modernization and fitness, and the present Indian team members are very fit.” He said India were reaping the rewards for restructuring their hockey set-up. “In India, the Indian Hockey Federation has over Rs.1000 crore in their account while their government also funds them. The PHF has not that kind of funds neither we are getting enough financial support from private sponsors or the government.” The PHF official said it was all about money. “And unless we don’t invest in hockey and take care of players, how would we be able to get talent from. In Pakistan youth goes towards cricket because they know they have a secure future, while in hockey that is missing. Furthermore, lack of media attention as hardly any channel in Pakistan discusses the issues related to hockey due to domination of cricket and football viewership in the country.”
Pakistan began their Olympic journey with silver in Melbourne 1956, before going one better four years later in Rome, breaking India’s streak of six straight gold medals. Two silver medals and one gold followed in the next three Olympics before a bronze in 1976 as the team consolidated their position among the superpowers. They first missed podium came at Seoul 1988 before it managed a bronze medal in Barcelona four years later — their last Olympic medal to date. In between, Pakistan won World Cup titles. No doubt, Pakistan hockey has a great legacy. Legacy, therefore, can be a double-edged sword. If you hold on to it, it won’t let you see what’s wrong. But if you accept that ‘legacy’ is in the past tense and will not continue if it does not evolve, the results will begin to flow. Asif Bajwa says hockey in Pakistan is in that state. “They need to accept, adapt, and move. First of all, we must have a reality check. That means living in the past doesn’t help. So we have to accept that. We are number 18 in the world, which means that other teams are doing better than we are. The time when we could live in the past is over.”
Building a strong team is not an overnight process and it takes years to put together a balanced side keeping in view the modern approach to competitive international hockey, and the exacting scientific preparations that the international teams now favour. The standard of the game is changing so rapidly that the gap between the best and the second in line has narrowed considerably. In fact, the difference between the four top teams has become so small that whenever any two of them meet it is very difficult to predict the outcome of the game. To a question, Asif Bajwa admitted that in Pakistan, hockey had gone down badly because of poor management and also because proper attention was not paid in improving the structure over the years. “But even now I believe that if steps are taken and money is invested in the sport we can make a strong comeback. Hockey is in our blood,” he asserted.
Asif Bajwa said that in view of the ground realities in Pakistan and financial support in form of employment was imperative to entice youngsters towards hockey. “Unlike cricket, hockey is an amateur sport, an Olympic discipline. Unless financial needs are not taken care of, youngsters will not choose hockey as a career sport,” he said. “We need to be patient to see results as making a comeback is not an overnight process. We need to provide jobs to players to attract youngsters. This is Pakistan, not Europe, where sport is secondary. There are people below the poverty line. Getting jobs, through hockey, was a sweetheart before. That’s over. Departmental hockey used to be the lifeblood of the sport in Pakistan. Almost all government and public sector companies used to have hockey teams that they were proud of. This is no longer the case and sport is no longer a realistic way to pursue a career.” Asif Bajwa says if financial constraints are not ended and continue, and money doesn’t flow from government and business houses, Pakistan’s hockey struggles may not end anytime soon.
The big question is: would Pakistan be able to turn things around? Asif Bajwa is very hopeful that Pakistan hockey can turn their fortunes around. “If Belgium can do it, why can’t Pakistan? Belgium won their first Olympic medal in 1920. Then they took 96 years to win the next one at the Olympic Games. Like Pakistan, they ranked 18th twelve years ago. In those 12 years since then, Belgium have won two Olympic medals (gold 2020 and silver 2016), World Cup title (2018) and European Championship crown (2019). Perhaps a comparison with India is more relevant to Pakistan. After 2010, India took a professional and scientific approach and, more importantly, accepted what was wrong and corrected it. That change paved the way for them to return to the Olympic podium (bronze) at the Tokyo Olympics 2020.”
He said that all stake holders needed to sit down and take a long, hard look at what went wrong with Pakistan hockey. “We must reach out to the world hockey family and let them know that Pakistan is still alive and kicking and can still contribute greatly towards the promotion of the sport at the international level.” He also believes that revival of bilateral hockey ties with India will boost the sport not only in the two countries but also around the globe. “It will be great for hockey in Pakistan and India if the two countries resume playing hockey matches on a home-and-away basis. In fact, I believe that such matches will provide a big boost to Asian hockey as well. But once again, that will only happen if the relations between the two countries improve.”
Pakistan’s immediate goal is to qualify for the 2023 World Cup through the Asia Cup to be held in 2022, which is also the year of the Asian Games and the Commonwealth Games. “While the PHF is optimistic, but at the same time we don’t have a magic wand. We cannot guarantee success. What we can guarantee is that we will create a fighting machine, we will create a team that wants to do it.” That sounds like a good first step for Pakistan as they hope to bring about a change that they so desperately need. “There could be certain driving forces for the revival of hockey in Pakistan such as repossession of national pride, restoration of public interest in hockey, and resolution of financial issues of hockey players.”
Pakistan hockey needs adequate hockey activities at early level which is only possible by evolving a system which could ensure that hockey gets due attention among the youth. “Pakistan was a fantastic hockey nation for decades and ruled at international level by virtue of their talent and skills and now we are struggling to make our mark at the highest level of the game.” Asif Bajwa said just like Pakistan Super League was bringing many foreign stars to cricket, Pakistan Hockey League (PHL) can flourish domestic and club level players so that Pakistan can get more talent. “Moreover, by playing with foreign players, national players will learn the modern skills. In addition to this, PHL will automatically get coverage from Pakistan media, which in turn will result in people taking interest in the sport.” He said it was so painful that country’s national sport having so much pride and passion had gone down. “To rise above again, Pakistan hockey requires strong financial backup, commitment and self-belief. Only hard and incessant efforts lead to success. In the absence of these, we should not dream of reaching skies,” he concluded.
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