Pakistan hockey is going through its worst phase ever. The national team failed to qualify for the World Cup (for the first time) in 2014 and will also not figure at the 2016 Olympics, another dubious first.
Akhtar Rasool and Rana Mujahid, who were serving as the president and secretary general of the PHF, respectively, were still reluctant to step down. It took action from the country’s highest office that the shameless duo finally relinquished their posts. Now, there is a new set-up with Brig (retd) Khalid Khokhar as the president and the legendary forward Shahbaz Ahmed as the secretary general.
Shahbaz, who played for Pakistan from 1986-2002, is universally acknowledged as one of the all-time greats of hockey.
Given sobriquets such as “Maradona of Hockey” and “Man with Electric Heels”, he was the best forward of the world during his peak years (1989-95); he won the highest number of ‘Man of Tournament’. Rather, it used to be a surprise if the award went to someone else.
But the challenge ahead appears to be the toughest of his life.
In an interview with ‘The News on Sunday’ at the PHF headquarters in the National Hockey Stadium, the new secretary general delved into his plans and ambitions to resurrect Pakistan hockey.
“Indeed, these are the worst times for our hockey. The problems are manifold. We are out of reckoning at the world stage. The pool of players has greatly shrunk with very little hockey at the grassroots level and that too only in a few pockets. There is almost no activity in educational institutions and many departments have closed their hockey teams. Then of course is the matter of finances,” he said.
Giving his game plan, Shahbaz said, “We have to start from the available resources. Currently, two strong bastions of young talent are Gojra (district Toba Tek Singh) and Lahore’s Dar hockey academy. The first mentioned is easily the biggest hockey nursery in the country for the last quarter of a century now. While Dar academy, very ably run by Olympic gold medallist Tauqeer Dar, has emerged as a reservoir of polished talent in a very short time. I want to strengthen them further.
“We should concentrate on places where hockey structure is in place, and with little patronage boys could be groomed. For instance, one such place is Abbottabad: already a lot of activity is there. Given a little attention, players should come out. Peshawar could be another centre.
“It is painful to see that Karachi is no longer a big hockey nursery. Pakistan’s biggest city has given so many greats in the past. With the law and order improving there, one should be hopeful for a revival.
“I also desire to see the former nurseries such as Bannu, Sialkot, Sheikhupura flourish again. It will primarily depend upon the efforts put up by the people managing the local hockey.
“I want to convey the message that if there is some genuine effort, the PHF will be there to help. We will also try to prepare a competitive environment with tournaments between the already existing centres. There is no substitute for competition if you want to produce quality players.
“There should be more hockey activity in educational institutions. For this, the revival of sports seats in colleges is essential. I intend to contact the government ministries and departments in this regard. As per my experience, educated players are always better equipped for international hockey, especially in this modern era where diverse strategies have to be adopted not only for various oppositions but even during the different phases of the same match. Plus the role of gadgetry such as computers has enhanced.
“It is essential to revive departmental teams. Unfortunately many departments have closed their hockey teams. The jobs these departments used to provide was a great incentive for the players. The previous setups tried in this respect and even got the verbal approval from the highest office of the land but it came to nothing. I am confident to prevail upon the government. It won’t be a big issue to recruit a handful of players every year when dozens get through political connections,” said the former Pakistan captain.
Reportedly, the PHF is in the worst ever financial straits. Perhaps for the first time in history, the players were not even paid daily allowances.
“In my opinion, it is due to the erosion of credibility,” said Shahbaz. “Remember, Pakistan’s participation in last year’s Champions Trophy was in doubt due to the non-availability of funds. Some sponsors, primarily the Omar Associates, came forward to finance the tour. However, on becoming aware of the way the affairs of the PHF were being managed, these sponsors pulled out although the Green-shirts did reach the final of the Champions Trophy after a gap of 16 years.
“Even the government became reluctant to release the allocated funds. We need to restore the confidence of donors. Already, there are positive signs. Talks are on with quite a few business houses, including some mega corporations,” said the secretary general.
Asked why he remained away from the affairs of the national game during all these years when it hit the rock bottom, he said, “I have consented to take this seat because I am confident that given proper environment, I could deliver. In Brigadier Khokhar, there is a person who is a good team leader. I had offers and opportunities to get some office in the PHF under previous setups but refused since I knew I couldn’t work with the people at the helm. It was really painful from the sidelines to see Pakistan hockey’s continuous decline,” he said.
“All these plans definitely require some time. The priority is the forthcoming Junior Asia Cup. Pakistan have to finish among the top four to qualify for the 2016 Junior World Cup. We are fully concentrating on that.
“The boys will stay in Malaysia after the Sultan Johor tournament and will only return to Pakistan after the conclusion of the Asia Cup. This is designed to give them ample time to acclimatise. They will also be playing practice matches at the Asia Cup venue during this intervening period. All this will mean that by the time the junior Asia Cup commences, Malaysia will be the ‘home away from home’ for them,” said Shahbaz.