The last time Pakistan played in India, it ended with the bilateral hockey relations between the two nations getting snapped. It was at the same venue when they were involved in an ugly spat with the crowd four years ago following a narrow win over India in the semifinal of the 2014 Champions Trophy. But the kind of reception they received on Saturday would’ve given you the impression that none of it ever happened.
The welcome they got was louder than most teams have received here, which is saying something because Germany, their opponents on Saturday, have traditionally been the second team for the crowd after India. “It was like a dream,” Pakistan coach Tauqir Dar said of the reception. “The hospitality has been very warm and the crowd was cheering for us, which was very motivating for the players. We will hope to treat them with some good hockey.”
Unfortunately for Pakistan, the result didn’t quite match the occasion. The Green Shirts opened their World Cup campaign with a 1-0 defeat to Germany. But it wasn’t a whacking that many expected it to be at the hands of the Olympic bronze medalists. Then again, Germany aren’t really known to fire off the blocks.
Pakistan’s participation at the World Cup has been a subject of conversation from the day they’ve qualified for the event. It was first doubted if they would even be given visas for the tournament — since they weren’t given one in time for the 2016 junior World Cup. When that bit was sorted, they were gripped by financial crisis so severe that their coach Roelant Oltmans left the job and the federation was considering to forfeit their spot in the World Cup.
The chaotic build up was evident in the manner in which they’ve played on Saturday. Pakistan were stubborn but not skillful, and of the 16 teams here for the World Cup, they gave the impression of being the least fit. And although they were defensively strong, they barely looked threatening going forward. Skipper Muhammad Rizwan was influential in the midfield, intercepting passes and feeding the strikers. But the lack of speed and skill among the forwards proved to be a letdown. It made you wonder as to what went through the mind of Hassan Sardar, the crafty Pakistan forward, as he saw his team’s strikers struggle to beat even one German defender.
They lacked the pace to even reach some of the passes, which lacked accuracy and pace in the first place. No wonder then that Pakistan are relying heavily on their defence and experienced goalkeeper Imran Butt. Dar said that former Pakistan international Rehan Butt, here as an assistant, has spent sleepless nights to try and get the defensive structure right. To their credit, the defenders closed down spaces in their third, but Pakistan’s inability to plug the holes in the midfield gave Germany the freedom and space to pass around, and although they weren’t efficient in their trademark manner, the heavyweights managed to get the job done.
The only goal of the match was scored by Marco Miltkau in the 36th minute, who dove and scooped the ball past Butt to ensure his side got off to a winning start. Coach Stefan Kermas said the win will calm down the nerves of his players, who come into the tournament having played the least number of competitive matches compared to other contenders.
Germany’s preparation for the World Cup has been shrouded in secrecy — more by accident than design. After playing the World League Finals at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar last December, Germany have barely played any international hockey. They traditionally do not compete at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup and were declined a wild card for the FIH Men’s Champions Trophy in Breda last June. The secrecy, Kermas joked, might work in their favour. “But the first round matches have shown us that the level among the top teams is getting closer. Nothing is really a secret anymore,” he added cautiously.
Despite the win, Germany are already playing catch up with Holland, who smacked six past Malaysia to lead Pool D. And while the Germans are expected to close that gap in the matches to come, Pakistan will be glad to score even one.