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Our last chance?

Pakistan’s important event this year is the World Hockey League semi-finals in Antwerp. The 10-team event will serve as the Olympic qualifiers. With only a few weeks to go, it is imperative that our boys get a lot of international exposure before the tournament

Our last chance?

Having missed this year’s Azlan Shah Cup due to lack of funds, Pakistan managed to participate in the four-nation tournament in Hobart, Australia. There were actually five teams as the hosts had entered two teams.

Pakistan achieved mixed results. The world’s 10th ranked team won both its matches against No 8 Korea, lost all the three against the top-ranked Australians and also the one against No 7 New Zealand. Against the latter, Pakistan lost 2-4 after gaining a two-goal lead. In the second match versus Korea, they displayed great resilience: coming from 2-4 down to win 5-4.

Australia are currently the undisputed king of men’s hockey. They are way ahead of the rest of the world. The manner in which they pulverised all and sundry at the 2014 World Cup — including the 6-1 demolition of the hosts Holland in the final — was unbelievable.

In Hobart also, the Kookaburras were overwhelming and had big wins against all the other three participants.

The matches involving Pakistan, Korea and New Zealand were mostly well-contested affairs.

Pakistan’s presence in Hobart remained doubtful till late, again due to the finances. The PHF which has been complaining of lack of funds approached the highest office of the land as the Prime Minister is the patron-in-chief of the PHF. But given the recent past record of the PHF, the government’s response was lukewarm. Of all the sports, in last five years, hockey has been the biggest recipient of government funds; results obtained have been the worst in country’s history.

An audit has also been ordered to scrutinise the PHF accounts. For this very tour, the Punjab government came to the rescue. Still, the PHF had to borrow money. And even then the players had to do without the daily allowances.

It was just one of the problems. The training camp for the Australian tour was first held in Islamabad. The worn-out turf led to a number of injuries and the camp had to be shifted to Lahore where mercury was close to 40. The team travelled to play in the Southern Hemisphere where the temperatures were less than 10 degree. The Green-shirts were also missing M Rizwan Sr and Mohammad Rashid, who are busy playing for the leading Dutch club OranjeZwart. Interestingly, the duo has played a stellar role in their club winning the European Hockey League (EHL) title, which is equivalent to soccer’s European Champions League. The club is on the verge of achieving the double as only a few days back it reached the play off final of Hoofdklasse, the Dutch hockey league.

Taking into consideration all the above, the team’s show Down Under can’t be termed unsatisfactory.

The most important event this year is the World Hockey League semifinals in Antwerp, Belgium. Starting from the 20th of June, the 10-team event will serve as the Olympic qualifiers. With only a few weeks to go, it is imperative that Pakistan boys get a lot of international exposure before the tournament.

A few days after arriving from Australia, the team has flown to South Korea for five tests against the hosts. Matches are also scheduled against Ireland and the USA in Belgium. All this means Pakistan will get quite a few internationals before the World Hockey League semi-finals.

The unthinkable happened when the national team failed to qualify for the World Cup 2014. One hopes, not only for the sake of Pakistan hockey but for the entire nation, that they make it to the Olympics.

The World Hockey League semi-finals at Antwerp present a big challenge. Three or four teams will qualify for the Olympics from these. India have already made it by winning the 2014 Asian Games. Australia are also expected to earn an automatic slot as they are the favourites to win the Oceania Cup in October. Belgium and Great Britain are among the top contenders along with Germany and Holland for August’s Euro Nations. Hence, Pakistan can get the qualification even if they finish 6th. However, nothing should be left to chance; reaching the semi-final would ensure their presence in Rio 2016.

Australia, India, France and Poland are the other sides in Pakistan’s pool. The other pool includes Belgium, Great Britain, Malaysia, Ireland and China. Four teams from each will qualify for the quarter-finals. The Green-shirts should aim for at least the second place to avoid Belgium and Great Britain in the quarters, who are expected to finish as the top two in the other pool. For this, Pakistan have to finish ahead of traditional rivals India; not an easy task. Even France can’t be taken lightly; they finished 2nd in the 2015 junior World Cup. So Pakistan have their work cut out for them.

Irrespective of the PHF’s mismanagement, financial or otherwise, Pakistan hockey, especially the national team, needs to be facilitated in every possible manner.

In the nightmarish event of the national hockey team not making to Rio, more than a billion people watching the Olympics’ opening ceremony will be astonished to see a single digit representation from the world’s sixth most populous country. Their shock could be further compounded to know that all the Pakistani competitors at the 2016 Olympics owe their presence to the quota awarded to each country. At the last Olympics, the other five participants — two athletes (one male and one female), two swimmers (one male and one female) and one shooter — owed their presence in London to wild card entries.

It would be a National Humiliation Day.

Ijaz Chaudhry

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

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