With the increased number of teams to feature in World Cup 2018, Pakistan, who failed to qualify for the last edition, will find an easier path to qualify. Twelve teams qualified for the Hockey World Cup 2014 sans Pakistan but now the draw size has been increased to 16.
Pakistan are all set to feature in World Hockey League semi-finals, which will be held in London from June 15 to 25. Ten teams will be seen in action during the semi-finals. Pakistan have been bracketed with arch-rivals India, The Netherlands, Canada and Scotland in Pool B in the first leg of the league’s semi-finals.
The event is very important for Pakistan as it offers the easiest way for Pakistan to qualify for the World Cup 2018.
The other semi-final event of World Hockey League will be held in Johannesburg in July this year. Ten teams will also be participating in that event too.
Top ten ranked teams from World Hockey League will join hosts India and five continental champions in the World Cup. The second chance for Pakistan will be to qualify for World Cup by winning Asia Cup later this year.
“I am hopeful that Pakistan will qualify for the World Cup through World Hockey League semi-finals,” Shahnaz Sheikh, a former Pakistan Olympian told ‘The News on Sunday’. “I think eight teams from the ten teams featuring in London will qualify for the World Cup since there is a high chance that continental champions will also be the top performing teams in World Hockey League.”
The former coach added that he felt Pakistan would finish among top six. He said that there were several new faces in the squad, which could prove good for the Green-shirts. “The seasoned players have been more interested in foreign leagues then so be it. Youngsters have been given a chance and hopefully they will not let us down,” Shahnaz said.
Pakistan Hockey Federation (PHF) secretary Shahbaz Ahmad Senior echoed Shahnaz’s take and said the Green-shirts would qualify for World Cup 2018 with a good performance in World Hockey League. “Our team will be playing three matches in Ireland against hosts before leaving for England on June 10 for World Hockey League. I think by then our team will be fully prepared to take the challenge,” said Shahbaz, a former Pakistan captain.
Pakistan will be playing against Ireland on June 1, 3 and 4.
However, legendary hockey player Samiullah stressed that Pakistan should prepare well as Hockey World League would be a highly competitive event as all teams would want to qualify through it. “It will be a tough tournament. European teams couldn’t be underestimated, especially when they are playing in Europe. Teams like The Netherlands, hosts England and even France could prove dangerous. I want to tell our team to be well prepared,” said Samiullah, who was fondly called ‘flying horse’ for his speed.
He added that qualifying through Asia Cup would be a bit more difficult for Pakistan. World Hockey League offers the best chance and Pakistan should avail themselves of it.
Pakistan’s head coach Khwaja Junaid, who has been praised for Green-shirts’ good performance against New Zealand in a five-match series earlier this year, is confident that his team will secure World Cup berth next month. “We have been working on our weaknesses, which we identified Down Under, in matches against our local teams. We have not been forcing our players for very hard drilling. Our aim is to remove our weaknesses and achieve flair before the league. I believe we are well prepared,” he said.
Pakistan seniors who will play in London recently played against second-tier Pakistan Whites and third-tier PHF Development team. Later they played only against Pakistan Whites and won all the matches.
However, Samiullah said that Pakistan missed a great opportunity to get a preparatory exposure ahead of World Hockey League when they failed to get invited for Azlan Shah Cup. “Azlan Shah Cup would have helped Pakistan prepare well for World Hockey League. But we missed that chance,” Samiullah said.
Shahbaz has also said that he does not want to complain anymore and now his target is to push the Green-shirts into top hockey-playing nations again. “Only in this way the men in green wouldn’t go unnoticed,” he said. “There are hockey fans around the world who want to see Pakistan playing their aggressive and wristy game. If our team starts performing well and lifts its ranking then Pakistan will not be ignored,” Shahbaz said.