There is something in the DNA of the people of Gojra that makes them pick the hockey stick. For them, it’s not merely a sport; rather it’s a passion. It is believed that more than 90 per cent of the city youth has surely touched the hockey stick at least once in their lifetime. That’s why a national hockey team sans 5-6 Gojra players is considered a rarity.
Gojra may be a tiny city in terms of population but it has nursed a great number of domestic and international hockey players for more than four decades. With more than a thousand domestic and nearly 150 international hockey players, the city rightly qualifies as the bastion of our national sport. Hockey players like Manzoorul Hasan, Rashidul Hasan, Tahir Zaman, M Khalid, Danish Kaleem, Sheikh Usman, Nadeem ND are but a few names who hogged the limelight in the past.
There are some unsung heroes out there as well — those who stayed out of limelight but their dedication and selfless services helped others attain heights of glory. Muhammad Iqbal (aka Iqbal Bali) is one of the two giant hockey coaches that the city has known; his rival, Aslam Roda, passed away in 2013.
Bali is a household name in Gojra. Ask any street vendor, shopkeeper, or even a passerby on the road and they all will know about his residence. Born in 1948, Bali graduated from a local college before he joined a bank to eke out his living, retiring as an assistant vice president. But these days, he devotes all his time to his undying passion: Coaching the budding players of hockey in Gojra.
An Olympian — he was part of the 1972 Munich Olympic squad — Bali played as a full back for five years (1971-76) for the national team. In ‘74, while he was still playing for the national team, he started a hockey club by the name ‘The Gojra Hockey Club,’ in the premises of Government College, Gojra, where he would impart his knowledge of skills to upcoming players. He maintains a full-fledged hockey ground at the facility, with his own money.
Roda, his counterpart, was already running his own hockey club during those days. This triggered a professional rivalry, albeit a healthy one. Both these clubs boasted nearly 150 international hockey stalwarts. Both didn’t charge anything for coaching.
In an exclusive chat, Bali tells TNS that he “had to accept help from a few old hockey players and some of my pupils, to acquire equipment (for the club) as it is too costly.”
He gives credit to Chaudhry Bashir Ahmad, a wealthy transporter in Gojra, who organised several hockey events and also provided financial help to the needy players. In fact, Ahmad was a pioneer in hockey clubs in Gojra, and he opened the city’s first club in 1968. Bali says he tried to follow in Ahmad’s footsteps.
Presently, he has nearly a hundred trainee hockey players enrolled with his club. They train for more than two hours a day, to perfect their skills.
Bali is aided by his Olympian pupils who drop by to see him off and on and share their expertise with the younger players at the club. Although he is proud of all the domestic and international players that he has produced, but Manzoorul Hasan, Rasheedul Hasan, Sheikh Usman, Danish Kaleem, M Khalid and a few others, who are considered the shining stars of Gojra, trained famously at his club.
Bali is dismayed to see the plight of the national hockey team. “We need to strengthen the club-level hockey teams in order to give a new lease of life to the game,” he insists. “Our provincial sports boards and colleges must invest more in the sport activities. Also, the teachers should be encouraged to attract the students towards the sport.”
Iqbal Bali, who has been running the club for the past 43-odd years now, is quick to add: “I shall continue to coach the young players just as Aslam Roda sahib did, for as long as I live. I don’t care about the paucity of funds, because we manage somehow.”
He hopes that the Gojra astro turf hockey stadium becomes functional soon as it shall serve to bring national as well as international level hockey to Pakistan in the future.