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A ray of hope in the gloom

It was a great team effort that gave Pakistan hockey its only bright moment of 2014 but there are always some who emerge as stars

A ray of hope in the gloom

The year gone by was mostly a disastrous one for Pakistan hockey. The national team missed the World Cup for the first time as they had failed to qualify. They were also not there at the Commonwealth Games due to the PHF officials’ foolish decision to put their weight behind the government-backed POA rather than the International Olympic Committee-supported POA.

At the Asian Games, the team displayed good hockey but went down in the final against India in penalty shootout, thus losing the opportunity to get an automatic spot at the 2016 Olympics. The Champions Trophy, held in the last month of 2014, was the last assignment. When Pakistan lost all the three pool games, it seemed the year would go down as one of the worst in the country’s hockey history. The controversial format which meant all the eight participating sides “qualified” for the quarter-finals provided Pakistan hockey the chance to salvage some pride. The Green-shirts took the opportunity with both hands and defeated the strong Holland side in the first knockout game. But the biggest test lay ahead. Pakistan met India, their traditional rivals as well as the hosts, in the semi-final. The match was watched by tens of millions across both the countries. Bhubaneshwar‘s Kalinga stadium overflowed with fans giving vociferous support to the home side. The nerve-wrecking encounter turned out to be a classic with Pakistan prevailing 4-3 in the end. Indecent gestures by some Pakistani players during the post-match celebrations resulted in a prolonged controversy. Two players were banned for the final against Germany. The Pakistanis couldn’t repeat the form and eventually lost 0-2. It was a great team effort that gave Pakistan hockey its only bright moment of 2014 but there are always some who emerge as stars. In the all-important semi-final, it was centre forward Arsalan Qadir. He first calmed the nerves of the nation by netting the equaliser to make it 1-1. Thereafter, his team never went into arrears. With score tied at 3-3 and less than two minutes left, the match appeared heading for a shootout, but an spectacular goal by Arsalan sent the whole Pakistan into ecstasy. Both were a classic striker’s goals. The first arrived through caressing an incoming ball with a static flat stick. For the match winner, Arsalan, on receiving a good pass, first drew the opposition defence to his right and in the same action took the ball far left before diving to put it past the goalkeeper with a reverse shot. The boy from DG Khan was modest after the victory, unlike some of his teammates. He was a popular choice for the Man of Match award and at the award ceremony impressed everyone when he thanked the Indian crowd. Hockey is Arsalan’s family game. “My father and uncles played the sport. My father also represented the regional outfits in the nationals. I and brother Faisal were regular at the club ground from an early age. Those days there was a lot of hockey activity in DG Khan,” he said in an interview with ‘The News on Sunday’. The first recognition for the siblings came through the selection for the DG Khan side in the Punjab Sports Board under-14 tournament. The next was the under 16. “The turning point in our career came when the two of us joined the Lahore-based Dar Hockey Academy in 2008. Excellent training on astroturf was imparted by the coaching team headed by Olympian Akhlaq. We, the outstation boys, were also provided with board and lodging as well as schooling by the academy. My game got really polished,” said Arsalan, who first came into the national limelight during the Pakistan under-18 super league in 2009. “Coach Akhlaq was the manager of the Islamabad team. He selected me and Faisal. We helped the unfancied side reach the semi-finals, and next both of us gained the national selection,” he said.

IJAZ-Arslan Qadir-1

The two brothers were proud members of Pakistan’s victorious side at the under-18 Asia Cup, 2009. There was no looking back afterwards. Arsalan toured abroad regularly with age-based national teams, mostly accompanied by his brother. His first proud moment came in the inaugural youth Olympics in 2010. Arsalan played a stellar role in Pakistan’s silver-medal finish, the country’s solitary medal at the games which had 26 sports. With 10 goals, the brilliant centre forward finished as the joint top scorer. “How the last round robin match against Belgium at the Youth Olympics went was quite similar to the 2014 Champions Trophy semi- final. There also, I netted two goals in Pakistan’s 3-2 victory, including the match-winning last goal,” said Arsalan, who debuted for Pakistan’s senior team in 2013 during the bilateral series in Australia as did Faisal. Their careers have run parallel almost throughout. The recent Champions Trophy was Arsalan’s first mega international event, and he distinguished himself in no small measure. “I was happy over my team’s success in the important match, and also felt satisfied with my own contribution. The Man of the Match award was the icing on the cake. But I was taken aback by the adulation I received afterwards.  I checked my mail on the internet on reaching the room and there was a flood of congratulatory messages. When I talked to my family in DG Khan, they told me about a media invasion at our place. My father and brother spoke live on TV channels after the semi-final,” he said. “People in DG Khan, including the local administration, had arranged some functions to honour me on my return home but they had to be cancelled due to the unfortunate incident in Peshawar.” Arsalan has a mature head on young shoulders. He knows what it takes to be an all-time national hero.  “Olympics is the ultimate aim. I wish to be part of an Olympic medal winning Pakistan team and make some contribution as I did at Bhubaneshwar,” he said.

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