Updated: November 29, 2021 9:13:09 pm
In the days leading up to the Tokyo Olympics, a statue of hockey legend Samiullah Khan was unveiled in the posh neighbourhood of Model Town, in Pakistan’s Bahawalpur.
Pakistan weren’t there in Tokyo, but the sculpture was a reminder of everything that was once adored about the country’s hockey, and the electric left-winger himself: the famous dark green shirt, the ever-smiling face of Samiullah, his inimitable grip – loose bottom hand and the flexible left wrist – and the giant stride of the man nicknamed ‘the Flying Horse’ for his speed.
Days later, the ball – which even the world’s best defenders couldn’t steal from Samiullah’s stick – went missing. And then, they stole the stick. All that was left was a man in a green shirt standing in an awkward position at a crossing in the city centre.
“You want to know what has gone wrong with Pakistan hockey, that incident explains everything,” says a member of Pakistan’s contingent that is in Bhubaneswar for the Junior Hockey World Cup.
It does, in a way.
International hockey has thrown up some remarkable storylines in the last decade: the emergence of Belgium, the resurgence of India, Argentina’s golden run in Rio, fast-rising France and Ireland. On the other side of the spectrum are Pakistan, whose decline – from fifth in the world in 2013 to 18th now – has been shocking.
The Tokyo Olympics was the second successive Games the Green Shirts missed. They failed to make the cut for the 2014 World Cup and had a forgettable outing in 2018. Their performance in the Junior World Cup doesn’t paint a rosy picture for the future either. Pakistan could not make it beyond the group stage, losing two out of their three games, with their only win coming against a lowly Egypt.
“I won’t say hockey in Pakistan is dead, else we wouldn’t have a team here,” says the official. “But well, it’s on life-support.”
To breathe them into life, they’ve turned to a Dutch coach with Indian-Surinamese roots, Siegfried Aikman. Aikman, who is set to become Pakistan’s foreign coach, is credited with turning around Japanese hockey, taking a bunch of unknown players and making them Asian Games champions.
Despite some performances that offer hope – most famously the 4-4 draw against the Netherlands in the Olympic qualifiers – that kind of overnight success is tough to achieve with Pakistan, where the problems lie deeper. And Aikman has some idea of what he’s getting into.
“The old internationals, the Olympians, are in charge and they do things they did years ago. They are from another era. They need to get the knowledge, understand the modern way of coaching,” Aikman says.
It’s the same problem India faced until the country started to rely on foreign coaches, who contributed to the team finishing on the Olympic podium after 41 years. Pakistan has had a couple of foreign coaches before. But they haven’t had the resources to keep them on a long-term basis while their former players did not have the wherewithal to learn new coaching techniques.
So, even as the hockey world zoomed ahead on fitness and tactical fronts, Pakistan remains stuck in an era gone by. As the opposition coach – it was Japan that eliminated Pakistan at the 2018 Asian Games – Aikman used Pakistan’s archaic training methods to his team’s advantage.
“Their players are skillful but physically not fit enough to play modern hockey. Technically, they were unable to use their skills to play modern hockey. They make many unforced errors, get tired and the decision-making is not up to the mark. Their tactical concepts are a little bit old-fashioned, too,” he says. “They have potential. But like India, they will need time to change. I hope I can help them.”
The inability to invest in developing coaches is understandable, given that Pakistan has barely been able to raise funds to compete in important international tournaments.
Financial crisis, corruption
Pakistan’s first assignment under their new coach will be the Asian Champions Trophy in Dhaka in December. In the last edition, held in 2018, India and Pakistan shared the trophy after the final got washed out.
But during that tournament, they did not even have enough money to foot their hotel bill in Muscat. They risked being thrown out of the hotel in the middle of the competition and were able to stay only because their Embassy stepped in and cleared the pending bills.
Weeks later, they were in a position to send the team to Bhubaneswar for the World Cup only because a private company was prepared to fund them after the government refused to bear the cost. The funding freeze continued into 2019 when Pakistan were forced to pull out of the FIH Pro League, a home-and-away tournament involving the world’s top hockey nations.
Pakistan were to play their home games in Scotland but did not have $650,000, which was the approximate amount needed to fund their participation in the six-month-long league. Eventually, they had to pull out and, ironically, were punished with a hefty fine by the international federation.
The lack of financial support, especially from the government, comes on the back of a series of corruption allegations on former players and federation officials, forcing the government to order an audit on past payments, as per the Dawn newspaper.
The monetary condition seems to have improved. But the overall situation hasn’t. So dire it is, in fact, that some of the game’s legends are starting to turn their back on Pakistan hockey.
Hassan Sardar, who was the team’s manager at the 2018 World Cup, had said at the time: “There is no hockey culture in the country (Pakistan) now. People are into cricket more, people follow cricket more. I think that if I was a kid now with talent in hockey, I would prefer playing cricket than hockey.”
Shakeel Abbasi, Pakistan’s three-time Olympian, had told Al Jazeera: “I made a mistake by picking hockey over cricket.”
The incident with Samiullah’s statue is, thus, emblematic of the situation Pakistan hockey finds itself in. The stick and ball stolen were re-installed, and the thief was arrested.
The hunt, meanwhile, for Pakistan’s glory days is still on.
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