Just when one prepares to write the obituary of Pakistan hockey, something extra-ordinary happens. There was this temptation to write one last week, immediately after the national team was massacred by England 8-2 in a pool A match of the FIH Champions Trophy currently under progress in the Indian city of Bhubaneshwar. The humiliating loss came soon after Belgium prevailed over Pakistan 2-1 in their tournament opener and was followed by a 3-0 defeat at the hands of Australia.
Pakistan, it seemed, were truly down and out even though a controversial format of the tournament guaranteed them a place in the quarterfinals despite the team’s failure to win a single pool game. They were drawn against European powerhouse Holland in the last eight and not even the most ardent of Pakistan hockey fans believed that their team had the guts to tame the mighty Dutch.
But then there was this stunning twist.
Pakistan surprised Holland 4-2 to set a date with arch-rivals Indian the semifinals of the elite eight-nation event. Since this piece had to be completed much before Saturday night’s Pakistan-India clash, I‘m restrained to commenting on what happened before the semis. The Green-shirts didn’t show a single glimpse of the fact that they were capable of causing such an upset against a top-tier team in the pool stages of the competition. I would like to think that seasoned coach Shahnaz Sheikh was keeping a few aces up his sleeves but that’s quite unlikely. Frankly, Pakistan tried to unleash all their firepower in the pool games but without much success. Against the Dutch, they went that extra mile and played with a lot of self belief, something that was missing in their previous outings. They were well aware of the importance of their second chance and grabbed it with both their hands.
Pakistan’s victory against Holland reminded me of a similar one that was achieved 14 years ago. The event was the 2000 Olympic Games and the venue was Sydney. Looking for a place in the semifinals, Pakistan went all out of a win in their crucial pool game against the Dutch. Not many thought they could win it but they did it and topped their pool to set a date with the Koreans in the pre-finals. Many thought it would be a cakewalk for Pakistan to their first Olympic final since Los Angeles but Korea pipped them 1-0 in a hard fought clash.
I was there when Sohail Abbas, the famed short corner specialist, failed to beat the Korean defence and was left in tears after the game.
Earlier, I was also there at the Sydney Olympic Park when Pakistan demolished England 8-2 in one of their pool games of the 2000 Olympiad. Their big win against Pakistan in Bhubaneswar last week was sweet revenge for the English who once served as punching bags for the Green-shirts.
But those days are long gone.
Pakistan hockey did receive a much-needed shot in the arm following last Thursday’s triumph against Holland but it remains neck deep in trouble.
The national team was almost on the verge of withdrawing from the Champions Trophy because the cash-strapped Pakistan Hockey Federation (PHF) was unable to foot the bill of the Indian trip. It was only after Karachi-based businessman Nadeem Omar came to PHF’s rescue that it came in a position to not only send the team to India but also give the players daily allowances.
It was a great gesture by the businessman but it was also pitiful to see Pakistan’s hockey chiefs holding their begging bowls and running from pillar to post in their bid to raise much-needed funds.
The financial crisis is of PHF’s own making. Over the years, the federation has received hundreds of millions of rupees in the shape of government grants but it has precious little to show for it. The current PHF officials have been pushing for more funds from the government but have failed to obtain them despite the fact that the federation’s president — Akhtar Rasool — is associated with the ruling PML-N. The primary reason why they have been snubbed by the government is the fact that the PHF literally wasted precious funds in the past. Its critics even accuse that some PHF officials committed financial frauds. With PHF’s reputation taking a major hit, it is not easy for the government to justify more grants for Pakistan hockey which is why it is reluctant in releasing the 500 million rupees sought by the federation.
But with little or no money, Pakistan hockey will continue to suffer. What it needs is carefully laid out plans which can only be prepared if all stakeholders sit together and start working towards such a goal. I would say that the concerned government authorities should summon a national hockey summit where ways and means to lift the national sport can be discussed and a consensus can be developed. Hockey shouldn’t be allowed to suffer because of the incompetence or greed of a handful of officials.
By conquering the formidable Dutch, our players have proved that all hope is not lost. It’s true that such positive results have been few and far between for Pakistan but the fact that they do happen, shows that we can still regain lost ground. I would say that the government and the private sector should play their roles in helping Pakistan hockey.
While Pakistan’s hockey authorities were celebrating their team’s victory in Bhubaneswar, in Lahore the country’s cricket chiefs were buoyed up by another positive development. They were busy making arrangement for a ground-breaking home series involving Kenya in Lahore. Having arrived on December 10, the Kenyans became the first international cricket team, other than Afghanistan, to tour Pakistan in almost six years. The March 2009 attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore sealed Pakistan’s status as an international sporting pariah. But it seems that the ice is melting, slowly but surely. I really hope that the Kenyan team’s visit goes on smoothly because that would pave the path for more such tours to Pakistan. Already, the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) is in talks with countries like Ireland and The Netherlands. Once it hosts the smaller cricket-playing nations, the Board would go for the big guns. It might sound a bit too optimistic at the moment but who knows Pakistan would once again host top-flight teams in the next couple of years.