Salman Akbar isn’t an unknown name for the people who have recently followed Pakistan hockey. Images of Salman Akbar blocking penalty shots in the semi-final of Asian Games 2010 will mesmerize the fans of Pakistan hockey for a long time. Salman, a former captain of Pakistan hockey team and currently playing league in the Netherlands, spoke to The News on Sunday recently and talked about his experiences and the decline of Pakistan hockey. Here are the excerpts.
The News on Sunday: Being a former Olympian, how does it feel to see Pakistan being unable to qualify for the Olympics?
Salman Akbar: I wish I had words to tell how it feels. I still remember that last year I was watching World Cup match between Holland and Korea and got tears in my eyes that the country which introduced World Cup, won it for record four times, was not part of it. Now we couldn’t qualify for the Olympics. I am hurt, I am angry, I feel like I am being kicked out from my own house.
TNS: Who do you blame for the current situation?
SA: There are many reasons for the current situation. The government’s behavior towards the national game is one of the main reasons. Hockey players used to get handsome jobs in the top departments of the country like PIA, Customs and NBP which gave players a sense of secure future and they remained focused on game. This opportunity was misused so much that the government lost trust in PHF and hockey people. If the government’s claim that it gave Rs640 million to PHF in last six years is to be believed then there is massive lack of planning and misuse of money and people at the helm of affairs in PHF should be held accountable.
By looking at major changes in living styles of PHF officials, one gets the feeling that there was never a financial issue.
If these officials were honest then they should have withdrawn themselves from all foreign trips and instead spent that money on players, which they did not. Another question is why PHF didn’t plan to generate money on its own. It shows that they were focused on something else.
Another reason for the current situation is that hockey is no more being played in schools. There is no domestic calendar. The domestic tournaments are not up to the mark. There is no coaching programme in the country, not even a basic one. All the hockey nations are investing in infrastructure by providing players the best facilities, by bringing professional coaches, trainers, physiotherapists and nutritionists but there is no professional physiotherapist, physical trainer, video analyst or goalkeepers’ trainer with the team.
TNS: You must be in contact with players. What are they feeling after seeing some of the critics blaming players?
SA: They are feeling helpless. They see how the officials are getting rich while players continue to struggle. Adding salt to injury, they can’t just say anything; if they do then they will be out of the team. Despite all problems players always give their best. Players can’t be blamed for what happened. PHF is to be blamed if players couldn’t perform as it was PHF’s failure that it didn’t gather a winning squad.
TNS: You remained part of Pakistan team for a long period. What’s your take on PHF’s attitude toward players?
SA: Players are always under pressure, pressure from all the quarters, pressure to perform, pressure to win the medals and then pressure from back home to earn livelihood for family. A hockey player in Pakistan is like a punching bag who is getting hits from everyone. I’ve heard many stories that some players bought presents or gave cuts from their daily allowance to the officials to stay in team, and if it is true then shame on those officials.
I salute these players, they’re our hero, they managed to win silver medals in Asian Games and Champions Trophy despite the unfriendly circumstances.
TNS: How do you see the campaign launched by the former Olympians against the officials of PHF?
SA: These former Olympians have been campaigning against PHF officials for last six to seven years. They probably think that they can run the hockey affairs better only because they’ve won titles for Pakistan. I disagree with this. There were two ex- Olympians who were part of the campaign against PHF, but then they were offered jobs in PHF and one became the chief selector and the other was appointed as chief coach. This gives a clear message that all they care about is positions. These former Olympians must understand that their days are gone, they played and won in ‘70s and ‘80s. The game has changed a lot since then. One of the reasons of Pakistan hockey’s present situation is these ex-Olympians. They didn’t do anything when they were at the helm of affairs. The group of ex-Olympians has some respected names. Why don’t they bring sponsorship?
TNS: There’s a never-ending debate on having a local or a foreign coach. You’ve worked with both. What do you think is the best option?
SA: PHF must invest in local coaches, especially in their education about how the game has changed. We must realise that most of the local coaches don’t match the international level. We need coaches who are aware of the latest trends in hockey. We can utilise the services of Tahir Zaman. He is a man who can bring change in Pakistan hockey, but to achieve results he, or anyone, must be given a free hand.
TNS: There’s a suggestion that a young man who has played in recent days should be appointed secretary of PHF. You are such a young man. Do you consider yourself suitable for the post?
SA: Unfortunately, the post of PHF secretary has become a political seat and I can’t do politics; it is not my cup of tea. But if I get the opportunity to improve standard of Pakistan hockey, then yes I will do that. I can help Pakistan hockey in any capacity. It is not about being PHF secretary. I can help Pakistan hockey in other departments such as goalkeeping.
TNS: What are your suggestions, short-term and long-term, to give a new life to hockey in Pakistan?
SA: The government must support the national game and keep an eye on how the funds are used. Jobs must be given to the players so that they are free from worries of life. But we also need to get rid of political appointments. PHF should bring professionals, whether local or foreigner. Domestic structure needs to be stronger. Coaching at domestic level needs to be reformed. We must forget about any short-term solution; it is not going to benefit anyone. We must have a long-term plan.