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‘Our national team hasn’t made much progress’

In an interview with ‘The News on Sunday’, PHF Secretary General Shahbaz Ahmad dwells on various national hockey issues during 2016

‘Our national team hasn’t made much progress’

It has been a little over one year since Pakistan Hockey Federation’s Secretary General Shahbaz Ahmad, the only hockey player to be awarded Hilal-e-Imtiaz, assumed the responsibility.

With 2016 coming to an end, he talked to ‘The News on Sunday’ about various aspects of Pakistan hockey.

The national senior team’s performance is generally regarded as the main barometer to measure a federation’s success.

“As a former international player, I admit the national team hasn’t made much progress. Quality of players is not good. The basics are weak. Mental toughness also leaves a lot to be desired. There was little participation in the international events primarily due to Pakistan’s failure to qualify for the 2016 Olympics. The two appearances were at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in April and the Asian Champions Trophy in October. At the Azlan Shah Cup, we finished a poor 5th. I think it was an improved display at the Asian CT where Pakistan reached the final losing to India by one goal. We had been outplayed by them at the Azlan Shah Cup, losing 1-5.

“It pains me to notice that players’ preference is just to get a contract with some club in a foreign league. I am all for hockey players getting good money but we will devise a plan so that players don’t play in substandard leagues. All this makes it imperative to have a competitive and lucrative league in Pakistan.

Junior sides:

“For Pakistan hockey’s immediate future, the under-21 team’s performance was vital. The most important event was the Junior World Cup. Hence, they were given the maximum attention. At the Junior Asia Cup in November 2015, Pakistan had to be in top four to make it to the Junior World Cup. The boys did well to reach the final where they were outplayed by India 6-2. It was a wakeup call: a wide gulf existed between us and the top teams. The team was twice sent to Europe where it played against the national junior sides of Germany, Netherlands, Belgium and Spain. The experience gained proved useful. At the Sultan of Johor Cup this November, the under-21 boys surprised everyone by reaching the final. The team was reaching its peak before the Junior World Cup but for the unfortunate exclusion.

“A third string has also been raised, the national under-18 team. A series with the Oman under-18 team was arranged in Lahore. Admittedly, Oman didn’t provide strong competition but at least there was international hockey in Pakistan after a long time. At the Boys Under 18 Asia Cup in Dhaka, Pakistan finished 3rd, losing to India in the semi-final. I watched the match. The defeat aside, the boys played poorly.”

Women hockey revived: “Pakistan’s national women team hadn’t figured in any international event for more than three years. The national side participated in the Asian Hockey Federation Cup in Bangkok. The girls achieved the best-ever result for Pakistani women in history, finishing fourth.”

Domestic circuit: “There has been a lot of talk about the decline at the grassroots. Here, I consider the rejuvenation of the club hockey as our big achievement. After a lapse of 10 years, the national club hockey got underway. Clubs in no less than 144 out of 149 districts of the country participated. A massive exercise; beginning from the district round, the national inter-club hockey progressed to divisional/regional and then the provincial rounds. The final national round will be held in January. At several places, people turned up in thousands to witness the matches. We intend to make it a regular activity, part of the PHF’s annual calendar.

In addition, tournaments of innovative versions of hockey, 5-a-side and 9-a-side, were held at the national level for the first time. These events, especially the 9-a-side tournament, drew large crowds in Karachi.”

The activities at the district, divisional/regional and provincial level: “PHF wants hockey bodies to be vibrant at all levels. People have been holding offices for decades without delivering anything. We plan to make amendments in the PHF constitution so as to get rid of these mafias. The change of guards at the Karachi Hockey Association with Dr Junaid Ali Shah coming as the president is a case in point. Hockey had almost ceased to exist in country’s biggest city but now there is plenty of activity in form of tournaments and camps for various age groups. Capable people can bring real transformation.”

Artificial turfs: “The first priority is to replace the worn-out turfs rather than install new pitches. The turfs at mega cities such as Islamabad, Faisalabad and Peshawar need immediate replacement. Bannu, a big hockey nursery, also requires a new turf. A new turf has been installed at Rawalakot; another is planned for Swat.”

Job opportunities: “Sadly, many departments have either closed their hockey teams or are employing players only on contract. The efforts in this regard have started to bear fruit. In fact, many organisations such as SNGPL, Fauji Foundation, ZTBL and OGDCL have decided to raise hockey teams for the first time. Some departments already in the fray such as the National Bank have made the players, previously on contract, their permanent employees.”

Funds: “Happily, the government has been releasing reasonable funds. PHF has been able to generate around fifty million rupees from the private sector in just one year. It is my earnest desire to see PHF as a self-sustained body but the initial support has to come from the government. Presently, even the headquarters of the federation is not owned by the PHF. On the other hand, many NGOs/Organisations, especially in Islamabad, have been provided with large office buildings by the government. Qaddafi Stadium, housing the PCB’s HQ, was also a government property, later transferred in the name of the cricket board.”

Exclusion from the Junior World Cup: “Disappointment is too small a word. We are not going to take it lying down. The PHF intends putting the matter in front of the FIH’s executive committee so that in future events are not held in India. Hopefully, the POA approaches the IOC. The last option would be to engage the Court of Arbitration of Sports.”

Pakistan Hockey League:”Unfortunately, some have called PHL a daydream. Yes, it couldn’t be held in November as initially planned. That was entirely due to the non-issuance of the NCO by the government; security concerns. PHF had done its homework. Even foreign players were ready to come to Pakistan.

“There were suggestions to hold it in the UAE. PHF might have won a few plaudits but staging the PHL abroad is not going to help the cause of Pakistan hockey. We are still hopeful to have the PHL at our own backyard in March/April, again subject to government’s permission.”

Ijaz Chaudhry

Ijaz Chaudhry
The author is a freelance sports journalist. He may be reached at [email protected]

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