There was once a time when hockey writers would run out of superlatives when commenting on the performance of the Pakistani team. Now, one is scrambling to find the right words to describe how they mighty have fallen. There have been sad days for Pakistan and there have also been black days. What happened in the Belgian city of Antwerp last Friday was even worse. It was downright tragic. Pakistan fell 0-1 against lower-ranked Ireland in a game that they desperately needed to win to keep their Olympic qualification hopes alive. But like so many other crunch games, the Green-shirts failed to click when it mattered most. They squandered a series of chances and are now out of next year’s Olympic Games to be hosted by Rio de Janeiro. It’s a stunning slump for a country that was once the mightiest powerhouse in world hockey. Our team used to ride roughshod over its rivals, winning even major titles like the World Cup and Olympics at will. Today, Pakistan isn’t even good enough to take part in the World Cup or the Olympics.
Despite all the shock, agony and disappointment that it brought to anybody who has any king of association with Pakistan hockey, the result wasn’t a surprising one. It’s true that Pakistan took the field against Ireland in a play-off match of the World Hockey League Semifinals fully aware that the Irish had never beaten them in their previous ten meetings. But the way Pakistan had been playing in the WHL semis, there was always a possibility that their team might crumble under pressure even against a lowly opposition.
There were clear indicators that Pakistan’s bid to win a Rio berth might end in catastrophe even before the national team flew out for Antwerp.
The team officials including head coach Shehnaz Sheikh were ruing the fact that their charges were unable to fully prepare for the Olympic Qualifiers. The Pakistan Hockey Federation (PHF) chiefs were lamenting that they had no money to make that possible. The players were crying over the fact that they weren’t getting their salaries or allowances.
Even their trip to Antwerp seemed in jeopardy because of PHF’s empty coffers and in the end it was the Pakistan Sports Board that agreed to foot the bill for the team’s European sojourn.
Pakistan made a shaky start to their campaign but did manage to pull off a narrow 2-1 win against Poland in their opening game of the WHL semi-finals, an event which provided them with the last opportunity to seal a place in the 2016 Olympiad. They were held by France and later played out a 2-2 draw against old rivals India. However, it was a morale-shattering loss against Great Britain in the last eight that left Pakistan in a must-win situation against Ireland.
Pakistan tried their best but were unable to score even a single goal against the Irish, who were given a historic win by Alan Sothern. He converted a short corner with a blistering shot in the 46th minute.
With shoulders slumped and wearing an expression of disbelief, Pakistan’s players went off the field fully aware that they had let their country down.
“This is a sad day for Pakistan hockey,” said Pakistan captain Muhammad Imran after the defeat.
“We had our chances, but failed to convert them. We were misfiring throughout the tournament,” he added. “I feel sorry for the hockey lovers in Pakistan, who always expect a lot from the national team.”
I don’t think that expecting the national team to qualify for the Olympics was asking for too much. But it’s not Imran’s fault. I would blame the system that is infested with vested-interest elements. Over the years, high-profile sports like cricket and hockey have attracted people who are there for the big salaries, perks, foreign trips etc. Gone are the days when competent administrators like Nur Khan would run sports in Pakistan. Those people were there to give rather than take. Today, our sports is governed by officials motivated by greed for money and power. For instance, the PHF claimed it has no money to look after the national players but the federation was rich enough to foot the bill of its top officials including president Akhtar Rasool and secretary Rana Mujahid as they holidayed in Europe on the sidelines of the WHL semifinals. Even a former office-bearer of the PHF was accompanying them on the joy trip. These are the sort of officials who have played the lead role in our hockey’s downfall.
We will have to flush out such vested-interest elements plaguing our hockey before a comprehensive rebuilding process can be initiated. Otherwise there will be no hope for a sport that provided Pakistan with an identity when it needed one.