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So near and yet so far

How Pakistan’s hockey and squash players performed in 2014

So near and yet so far

For Pakistan hockey, 2014 began on a pessimistic note because for the first time in the history of the quadrennial spectacle the Green-shirts had failed to make the cut for the World Cup. The four-time former champions stumbled in the Asia Cup that provided them with the first opportunity to earn a direct World Cup spot. And then they flopped in the qualifying tournament. So when the 2014 edition of the World Cup took place in Netherlands last summer, the event did not feature Pakistan – one of the tournament’s most successful teams.

But as the year progressed, things began to change for Pakistan — and surprisingly for the better. They did miss the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow because of a power tussle between rival factions of the Pakistan Olympic Association (POA) but the Asian Games hosted by the South Korean city of Incheon was a different story. Pakistan, the defending champions, cruised into the final of the hockey event but fell to arch-rivals India in a pulsating shoot-out. It was a heartbreaking end to what was otherwise a good event for the Pakistanis.

Having lost their Asian Games crown, Pakistan set their sights on the eight-nation Champions Trophy in India. The Greenshirts finished with a bronze in the previous edition of the Champions Trophy and were once again looking for a top-four finish. But that target seemed a bit too ambitious for Pakistan because of their below-par record against top-tier teams like Australia, Germany and the Netherlands in recent times.

Pakistan’s problems were compounded by the fact that the country’s cash-starved hockey federation had no money to fund the team’s Indian trip. Pakistan Hockey Federation (PHF) even lacked the means to pay the players and team officials their salaries and daily allowances. Nadeem Omar, a Karachi-based businessman who takes keen interest in sports, came to the rescue by giving PHF and the players a substantial amount of money. Later, Pakistan hockey received more funds from other sources that allowed the national team to make the Champions Trophy trip.

In India, Pakistan began badly as they lost to fast-rising Belgium in their tournament opener but the real shock for the former Asian giants came in the shape of a 8-2 thrashing at the hands of England. It was easily one of the worst defeats faced by Pakistan and ignited fears that the country’s hockey was in complete decline. That loss was followed by another defeat, this time against Australia. However, a controversial format of the tournament that allowed all eight competing teams to feature in the quarter-finals allowed Pakistan to advance to knockout stage despite their poor showing in the league matches.

Pakistan were up against European powerhouse The Netherlands and nobody thought they had enough firepower to tame the Dutch. But the Pakistanis stunned their higher-rated rivals to set up a semi-final date with hosts India.

Playing in front of a packed and noisy stadium in the eastern city of Bhubaneshwar, Pakistan conquered rampaging India to reach the event’s final for the first time since 1998. In the summit clash, Pakistan failed to counter the high-flying Germans. The reigning Olympic champions won 2-0 to regain the coveted trophy for the first time since 2007.

For Pakistan, even a second place finish was a huge achievement considering that they are ranked 11th in the world hockey rankings. That’s the reason why instead of ruing a lost opportunity to win the Champions Trophy, Pakistan celebrated a rare silver medal in front of thousands of Indian fans who were vocal in their support for Germany during the final. The crowd was not only avenging the host team’s defeat but was also paying back for Pakistan’s behaviour after its 4-3 victory against India in the semis. After the highly charged encounter, a few of Pakistan players made improper gestures at the crowd. Pakistan coach Shahnaz Sheikh immediately apologized but the Indian hockey authorities refused to accept it and instead forced the International Hockey Federation (FIH) to take action against Pakistan. The FIH succumbed under Indian pressure and suspended two Pakistani players.

In spite of Pakistan’s second place finish in the Champions Trophy, hockey remains a dying sport in this country. Pakistan need to invest more on hockey. One hopes that things will improve for the national sport in 2015 when the Greenshirts will be battling for a place in the Rio Olympics.

Squashed hopes

For years, Pakistan’s squash chiefs have been claiming progress in a sport that continues to slip downhill in our country. At the end of 2014, Pakistan Squash Federation (PSF) once again patted itself on the back by announcing that it has achieved substantial targets in the bid to revive international squash in Pakistan as well as the training of national players.

In a superficial way, PSF has a point. It did manage to host a few world ranking events despite security threats and it also succeeded in launching a few training programmes. At the international level, Pakistani players did win the Asian Team crown and reached the final of the World Junior Championship. But these were minor achievements considering that Pakistan was once the biggest superpower in the world of squash.

The fact of the matter is that in the last world rankings of 2014 issued by the Professional Squash Association (PSA) on December 1, there was not even a single Pakistani in the top-40 list. Pakistan’s top-ranked player —Nasir Iqbal — was languishing at No. 43.

It was quite evident that despite a few good performances, Pakistan continues to lag behind both in hockey and squash. In 2015, the country’s faces tough challenges in either sport. Only by taking concrete measures can the concerned authorities ensure any substantial success. Otherwise Pakistan will continue to contend with minor achievements.

Khalid Hussain

khalid hussain
The author is Editor Sports of The News. He can be reached at [email protected]

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