When Pakistan were blanked 4-0 by arch-rivals India in their FIH Champions Trophy encounter in Breda (the Netherlands) last week the team’s critics went after the national players with sharpened knives. The boys were rejected as useless with many crying out aloud that it was the end of the world for Pakistan hockey.
Not many appreciated or even noticed a much-improved performance by the Pakistan in their second Champions Trophy game against Australia. They did lose it but not before giving the defending champions a run for their money. In the end, Pakistan lost 1-2 against the record 14-time Champions Trophy winners.
But the Pakistanis were unable to put their best foot forward in their third game of the elite six-nation contest as they were thrashed by hosts the Netherlands 4-0 – a result that ended their hopes of a podium finish in what is the last edition of the Champions Trophy.
That defeat once again allowed the naysayers to have a field day as they launched scathing attacks on the national team.
It wasn’t surprising. Even the ardent of Pakistan hockey fans were unable to defend the team after the big losses against India and the Dutch.
With a game Olympic champions Argentina coming up next, it seemed that another big defeat was just round the corner.
But that’s when the team showed that despite all its inexperience it did have some spine.
Just when almost everyone had written them off, the Pakistanis exhibited their true potential when they trounced the Olympic champions 4-1 to ensure that they won’t finish winless in the last edition of the Champions Trophy. Pakistan once again showed similar spirit against Belgium before going down fighting.
The win against Argentina didn’t save Pakistan from taking the wooden spoon in the competition but contrary to what the team’s critics think, the Green-shirts did show signs of revival.
Winston Churchill once famously remarked that “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”
After falling to India and the Netherlands, Pakistan displayed that sort of courage. They dusted off and kept going. That’s the type of spirit the team has to exhibit continuously if it is to progress at the international level.
Ask the man at the helm of Pakistan’s campaign to climb back on the FIH rankings’ ladder and he will tell you that the players have the potential to make vast improvement.
“We have to give them ample time,” says Brig Khalid Sajjad Khokhar, President Pakistan Hockey Federation (PHF), in an interview with The News on Sunday. “We have to give them facilities, ample opportunities but most importantly we have to give them time. There are no shortcuts when you are facing these sort of challenges,” he adds.
As PHF’s chief Khokhar has been on the receiving end of all the criticism aimed at Pakistan hockey. Whenever Pakistan lose a match, critics call for his head.
But Khokhar says he has faith in his boys.
“Listen, we have to realise that our hockey has slumped in the last 20, 30 years. There was a time when Pakistan were number one but that was a long time back. Now other teams have made big progress while we have gone back.
“To catch up with the top teams of the world is a huge challenge. We have to cover so many bases.
“One of the most important things is to give the players regular opportunities at the international level especially against top teams. By featuring in tough events like the Champions Trophy, our boys will be able to gain much-needed experience. They will learn to tackle difficult situations.”
No matter what the critics say, Khokhar is focussed on the national team’s biggest goal of 2018: the Asian Games in Jakarta in September.
“We sent the team to Holland for the Champions Trophy to gain experience and exposure. We knew we had little chance of winning the title. Our major target this year is the Asian Games. All the preparations are being made with that event in mind,” says Khokhar.
Pakistan won the gold in 2010 Asiad in Guangzhou (China) but failed to retain the title in the previous edition of the Games held in Incheon (South Korea) in 2014 when they lost against India in the final.
Once again, in Jakarta this fall, the biggest hurdle in Pakistan’s way would be India, who have grown in stature in the hockey world in recent years.
Khokhar agrees that the Indians have a better team than Pakistan but remains confident that his boys have the potential to punch above their weight, something they proved recently by flooring Argentina.
“They have to play to their true potential and they have to play with spirit. If they do that then I’m sure that we will have a great chance of winning the Asian Games title,” he says.
But it is going to be a huge task. That’s because the Indians seem to be in a different league altogether.
“That’s because India has invested billions of rupees on their team in the last few years. They have given them the best coaching, best exposure and now their team is producing results,” says Khokhar.
Pakistan do lag far behind India when it comes to funding for hockey.
The Indian hockey authorities get roughly six times more funds than their Pakistani counterparts. That’s despite the fact that Khokhar has been using his vast influence to gather funds for PHF in recent times.
“We have to invest more in our hockey,” he says. “And we cannot afford to be impatient.”
Meanwhile, Pakistan’s players will continue to work hard under the watchful eyes of their coach Roelant Oltmans. The Dutchman, who has returned to coach Pakistan after almost 14 years, is slowly but surely bringing the team on the right track. For him, too, Asian Games is going to be a major test. For the sake of Pakistan hockey, one hopes that Oltmans and his team passes it with flying colours.