Ranked at No. 18 in the world currently, Pakistan are in unfamiliar territory on the FIH rankings, staring at the possibility of missing yet another World Cup (after 2014). And if you happen to meet any Pakistani hockey fans, don’t even mention the fact that they missed the last two Olympics (2016 and 2020/21). Those wounds are still fresh.
But if Belgium can do it, why can’t Pakistan? Belgium won their first Olympic medal in 1920. Then they took 96 years to win their next at the Games. Like Pakistan, they were No. 18 twelve years ago. In those 12 years since then, Belgium have won two Olympic medals (gold and silver), the World Cup title and the European Championship.
Perhaps a comparison with India will be more relevant to Pakistan. After 2010, India adopted a professional and scientific approach and more importantly accepted what was wrong, and corrected it. That change paved the way for a return to the Olympic podium (bronze) in 2021.
Legacy, thus, can be a double-edged sword. If you cling onto it, it won’t allow you to see what’s wrong. But if you accept that ‘legacy’ is in the past tense and won’t continue if you don’t evolve, then the results will start flowing in.
Hockey in Pakistan is in that state. They need to accept, adapt and move.
But it surely isn’t easy. It took India 11 years and the ouster of a regime to bring about that change. There are still a lot of wrongs in the system but the sport has benefited. That is a fact.
Former media manager of the Pakistan team, Ijaz Chaudhry, has seen that journey of Pakistan from top to bottom very closely.
“From 1956 to 1984, Pakistan were mostly the winners or runners-up, whether it was the Olympics or the World Cup…In the 1973 World Cup, Pakistan finished fourth. This was a little setback. But then they improved again. Finished second in the 1990 World Cup, third at the 1992 Olympics and won the 1994 World Cup. Thereafter, it’s just decline and decline,” said Chaudhry talking to TimesofIndia.com from Pakistan.
“From missing out on medals, it has reached a stage where we are not able to even qualify for the Olympics,” he added.
But it can’t be without specific reasons; and to Pakistan’s credit, they tried bringing a change by hiring Roelant Oltmans as coach in 2018, but it ended unceremoniously as the Dutchman stepped down with less than a year in office, blaming the “environment” in the Pakistan Hockey Federation (PHF).
“The Federation is not being run professionally, incompetent people are there,” said Chaudhry. “Had we played the Pro League, then at least we would have remained a part of the mainstream.”
Chaudhry was referring to Pakistan’s decision in 2019 to withdraw from the Pro League, citing financial constraints.
It cost Pakistan dearly. They didn’t play any international hockey, ranking points came at a premium and it led to free fall. The result was they got a tough opponent in the Olympic qualification draw and played the Netherlands in the new format of the two-match qualifier.
The Dutch team won 10-5 on aggregate, after being surprisingly held to a 4-4 draw in the first match and then winning 6-1 in the second game to shut the Olympic door on Pakistan for the second edition in a row.
An effort to revive things was made during that qualifier as well, when the PHF sent an SOS to former captain Waseem Ahmed to join the team as mentor in the dugout. But such short-term arrangements can sometimes do more harm than good.
THE NEED TO BE PATIENT
Any change would take time to show the desired results. Perhaps it’s on those grounds that the new PHF administration, led by president Khalid S Khokhar and secretary general Asif Bajwa, decided to hire the services of Dutchman Siegfried Aikman, who took Japan to the 2018 Asian Games gold.
Before being officially declared by the PHF as Pakistan’s new coach, Aikman came scouting with the under-21 squad to the Junior World Cup in India recently. What he saw is yet to be known, but the juniors hardly impressed, finishing 11th in the 16-team tournament that saw France, Malaysia, South Africa and South Korea finishing higher than Pakistan.
Aikman has been offered a five-year contract and is currently with the senior squad for the Asian Champions Trophy in Dhaka.
“Firstly, I want them to have a reality check. That means living in the past doesn’t help. So we need to accept that we declined. We are number 18 in the world, which means that other teams are doing better than us…The time that we could live in the past is over,” Aikman said, talking to TimesofIndia.com from Dhaka.
He is trying to first address the habit of ‘clinging onto the legacy’, which is past. Aikman made an interesting observation, pending a “fact-check”, about whatever he has seen so far in the players.
“They call them skillful (but) I have another opinion. In my opinion, they have a lot of potential. But skillful? I don’t know,” the Dutchman said.
“I think they are very good dodgers, but dodging is a little part of the hockey game. If I look at technical skills like passing and receiving, I see too many unforced errors…They hardly control the ball well on the first touch, and they cannot play the ball in one touch most of the time because of that.
“So if you look at the demands of modern hockey and high-performance hockey, you see that they are lacking…We need to modernise the coaches in Pakistan.” Aikman further told TimesofIndia.com.
‘THIS IS PAKISTAN, NOT EUROPE’
Only time will tell if Aikman and PHF are on the same page.
Chaudhry meanwhile provided a first-hand local perspective of Aikman’s initial observation, and the reasons why talent in Pakistan could be waning, if not entirely out of sight yet.
“This is Pakistan, not Europe where sport is secondary,” said Chaudhry. “There are people below the poverty line. Getting jobs (through hockey) was a charm earlier. That has finished. The policy of this government is to end sports departments altogether, whatever is left.”
Department hockey used to be the soul of the sport in Pakistan. Almost every government and public-sector undertaking company used to have hockey teams that they took pride in. It’s not the case anymore and sport is no longer a realistic way to make a career.
According to Chaudhry, that situation has further worsened since the Imran Khan administration came to power. But he insists all is not lost.
“Downsizing and right-sizing led to (department) teams being shut down. Then there is the factor of glamour. If your national team is doing well, then there is charm and excitement among the young players. That is also not there, then money is not there, jobs are not there,” said Chaudhary.
“When the Imran Khan government came (to power), Pakistan were 10th in the FIH rankings, now we are 18th. So you can well imagine how sincere he is towards Pakistan hockey.” he added.
“The intention is just to pass the time, enjoy foreign tours and have followers who keep pleasing you…They stabbed, murdered Pakistan hockey,” Chaudhry further said.
ALL IS NOT LOST
Danish Kaleem, who was the Pakistan coach at the Junior World Cup recently held in India, tried to show the promising side of attempts being made to change the approach towards hockey governance in Pakistan. He, however, admitted that the decision to withdraw from the Pro League was a body blow.
“We have suffered because of our decision to miss the Pro League,” said Kaleem.
“Now, Asif Bajwa has joined again (as PHF secretary general) and our president, Khalid S Khokhar, is trying to improve a lot of things. He is serious about Pakistan playing all the FIH tournaments and matches next year. If we do that, our ranking will also improve.” Kaleem told TimesofIndia.com.
But Pakistan’s chances of playing international matches can only exist when they travel, as most international teams have still marked the country as a no-go zone for safety reasons.
That is why, as Chaudhry claims, he made an effort to successfully convince the FIH and Scotland to make Glasgow Pakistan’s ‘home’ to play the home leg of their Pro League games, but weeks before that, the PHF opted out of the tournament due to financial constraints.
If that continues and money doesn’t flow in from the government and corporates, Pakistan hockey’s struggles may not end very soon..
“Corporates are ready to contribute if they see where their money is being spent,” said Chaudhry.
“When they (PHF) mooted the idea of a league, even the franchise owners of the T20 cricket league (Pakistan Super League) got interested, even Pakistanis from abroad. But when they come and see how unprofessional the PHF is, they run away.
“But there are capable people as well, like Tauqeer Dar, who is running an academy in Lahore. They have toured Holland, Germany, Malaysia and even India once without any help from the government or federation, all private sponsors. Five of his players were in the Junior World Cup team,” Chaudhry added.
Aikman may have all the plans in the world for ways to revive the sport in Pakistan and PHF may talk about starting a league and building high-performance centres, but if the resources are not there or are not well spent, none of that may come to fruition.
For now, Pakistan hockey fans have their eyes firmly fixed on Aikman, but it would be unfair to judge him on how the team does at the Asian Champions Trophy. Such short-sightedness has hurt Pakistan and in fact India too repeatedly in the past.
Pakistan’s immediate goal is to qualify for the 2023 World Cup via the Asia Cup to be held in 2022, which is also the year of the Asian Games and the Commonwealth Games. While Aikman is optimistic, he has already told the people of Pakistan that he is not a man with a magic wand.
“I cannot guarantee success. I am just a normal human being. What I can guarantee is that I will create a fighting machine, I will create a team that wants to go for it.”
That sounds like a good first step for Pakistan as they hope to bring about a change they so desperately need.