During the early years of the country’s existence, Pakistan hockey possessed great talent with more than one world class player at every position barring one. Goalkeeping was considered the weakest spot. The first Pakistani net-minder to be acknowledged among the best in the world was Zakir Hussain, who recently passed away.
The man from district Attock of Rawalpindi division was an army soldier. Sports are a compulsory part of a soldier’s routine. Army team was among the strongest on the domestic circuit in those days. Zakir first appeared at the national championships in 1953. Next year, he helped army won the coveted title for the first time. December 1954 saw Zakir making his international debut against the visiting West Germany.
At their first two Olympic appearances, in 1948 and 1952, Pakistan had failed to win a medal, finishing fourth each time. After some serious soul-searching, a strong and well-knit Pakistan team was sent to the 1956 Olympics. Zakir was the first-choice goalkeeper of the side which fetched the country’s first-ever Olympic medal, silver, in any sport. The Green-shirts unluckily lost the final, 0-1 to India.
Next, Pakistan won gold at the 1958 Asian Games. It was the first time that India were relegated to the second position in an international event. Zakir was one of the stars — he didn’t concede a single goal in the event. But he also sustained an injury when a ball hit him on the chest. He soon regained fitness and performed well on the domestic circuit. Yet, he was controversially dropped for the 1960 Olympics.
New Zealand’s team on its way home from the 1960 Olympics played two matches in Karachi against a Pakistan Hockey Federation XI. Zakir not only guarded the goal but was also the captain of that side, indicating his ouster from the Olympics team was unjust. The simple soldier took it in stride. The selectors soon recalled him.
He was at his brilliant best when Pakistan regained the Asiad gold in 1962, beating India 2-0 in the final. Only one goal was scored against Pakistan. It seemed Zakir would now be a regular in the team. Fate again thought otherwise.
At the 1963 Pre-Olympic tournament in France, he was again hit on the chest by a ball. After the investigations, he was labeled as a case of TB. Now, a junior commissioned officer with the rank of naib subedar, Army retired him on medical grounds and he went home on pension.
However, Zakir maintained that he was still fit enough to play at the highest level. Though dejected, he made appearances for the Attock district and occasionally Rawalpindi zone on the domestic circuit.
Fast forward to 1967: Air Marshal Nur Khan became the President of the PHF in 1967. He promised the nation to bring back the Olympics hockey gold. Since 1962, the team’s graph had been going downwards. Pakistan had lost both the titles: Olympics and Asiad, losing the finals, in 1964 and 1966, respectively.
Nur Khan brought Brig (then Lt Col) Manzoor Hussain Atif as the manager of the team. This was Atif’s first major assignment although he had been manager in 1965 and 1966 in minor tournaments.
He made courageous decisions. During his previous tenure, he had unearthed a brilliant right-in Ashfaq. But he had been side-lined. Ashfaq was brought back. Saeed Anwar had been playing as a centre-half since the departure of Anwaar Ahmad Khan.
Atif brought him back to his original right-half position. Riaz, who had been a reserve, was made the number one centre-half. Young Abdul Rasheed Junior was a right-in but Atif switched him to centre-forward and trained him to be a poacher who could avail himself of even half chances. Fazal-ur-Rahman was a fine left-half and unlike conventional left-halves, an attacking one. On the other hand, Gulraiz Akhtar was not flashy and only adhered to the prime task of defence. It was a bold move to prefer Gulraiz over the popular Fazal, who was taken as a reserve.
But Atif couldn’t find any suitable goalkeeper from those active on the national scene. Holland’s national team had toured Pakistan in early 1967. Apart from tests against Pakistan’s national team, they also played the zonal sides. Zakir was visiting Rawalpindi for some personal task when he came across the president of the Rawalpindi zone hockey association. He requested Zakir to play for the Rawalpindi zone against Holland. Zakir reluctantly agreed. In the match played at the Army stadium Rawalpindi in front of a full house, he displayed the form of the years gone by and didn’t let the Dutch find the target in a 0-0 draw.
Atif sent a messenger to Zakir’s village with a letter requesting him to join the national team’s camp. Zakir had had a long association with Atif. They had played together not only for the national team but also in the army colours. The soldier couldn’t say no to the officer.
Many laughed at the choice, calling Zakir an “old man”. Though, the skill was intact, Zakir had gone physically very weak. Atif paid special attention to his health and handed him Rs10,000, a huge sum at the time, saying “whenever you feel hungry, eat a roasted chicken and when thirsty, drink a jug of milk”. He was also administered vitamins injections regularly.
For the preparation, Pakistan team toured abroad and also hosted teams apart from holding a seven-nation tournament in Lahore.
By the time the 1968 Mexico Olympics arrived, Zakir was in an excellent condition: physically, mentally and technically. He was appearing at the Olympics after 12 years — the longest gap for a Pakistani between two Olympics appearances. Pakistan won the Olympic gold the second time, winning all their nine matches. Only five goals were conceded and Zakir kept clean sheet in five matches.
The fairy tale couldn’t have a better ending. Zakir defended the goal in an era when the goalkeeper’s outfit consisted only of leg pads and gloves. His forte was courage. The brave soldier was ever ready to take the ball even on his face or head.
Four appearances in the only two title tournaments of that time: 1956 Olympics, silver (his country’s first Olympic medal); 1958 Asian Games: gold; 1962 Asian Games, gold; 1968 Olympics, gold. Even a fiction writer couldn’t have thought of the remarkable comeback leading to the glory at the 1968 Olympics.