Forget about merely qualifying for the Olympic Games, there was once a time when Pakistan would take an Olympic hockey medal for granted. They always went for the gold and more often than not will finish on the victory podium in what is the world’s greatest sporting spectacle.
But that was a different time when Pakistan would run roughshod over their rivals and will win international titles almost at will.
Now, the story is quite different.
Take for example the case of the next summer Olympics – the 2016 Games to be held in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil).
Pakistan remain in clear and present danger of suffering the ignominy of missing out on the Olympics for the first time in history. Just last year they suffered a major embarrassment when the national team failed to qualify for World Cup 2014 in the Netherlands. It was the first time that the four-time world champions weren’t part of the World Cup.
Though national hockey officials are confident that the sad story won’t get repeated at the Olympics, there are no guarantees that Pakistan would secure a spot in the Rio Games.
Pakistan squandered a perfect opportunity to win a ticket to Rio when they failed to retain their Asian Games crown in Incheon, South Korea. Pakistan fell to old rivals India in the final. According to the International Hockey Federation (FIH) rules, all continental winners get a direct entry in the hockey competition of the Olympic Games.
With that chance gone, Pakistan will now have to take the riskier route of the qualifying rounds to earn an Olympic berth.
The qualification phase for them will begin in the Belgian city of Antwerp in June this year.
Ask Shahnaz Sheikh, Pakistan’s head coach, and he will tell you that his charges are capable enough of winning an Olympic berth.
“We suffered a major setback because of our team’s failure to qualify for last year’s World Cup,” Shahnaz, a former Olympian, told ‘The News on Sunday’. “We cannot afford a similar setback ahead of the Olympics and need to give our best and qualify for the Rio Games,” he added.
Shahnaz, who is at the helm of Pakistan’s team since last April, said that in spite of the fact that his side’s preparations have been far from perfect the Greenshirts will not disappoint the nation at the Olympic qualifiers in Belgium this summer.
“We know that hockey is an important sport for Pakistan and that’s why we cannot afford to remain out of the Olympic Games. That is why despite all the odds our boys will give their best in the qualifying event and will a berth for the Olympics,” said Shahnaz, regarded among one of the legends of Pakistan hockey.
Shahnaz’s optimism springs from the fact that since his stint began a year ago, Pakistan have reached the finals of two major events – the Asian Games and the Champions Trophy.
He is of the view that if given proper training and exposure, Pakistan’s hockey team has the potential of reaching the top-six rankings by the end of next year.
“We are lagging far behind top teams at the moment but I am sure that with proper training and exposure we can gradually cut down the gap and regain our place in the top-six sides of the world.”