When Sweden failed to qualify for the 2014 football World Cup in Brazil, their skipper Zlatan Ibrahimovic famously said: “One thing is for sure, a World Cup without me is nothing to watch.”
While Ibrahimovic is a self-indulgent and slightly delusional player, the words would not seem out of place if the Pakistan U21 hockey team said them.
The side will not be travelling for the 2016 Junior Hockey World Cup after they were not issued visas on time by the Indian government, with their place being taken by Malaysia — who were recently defeated by Pakistan Juniors in the semi-finals of the Sultan of Johor Cup.
Historically speaking, Pakistan are the most successful team in hockey. The fall from grace has been emphatic and swift but that famous kit still stands for something. When these colts don those hallowed colours, they become more than themselves — they become the Greenshirts, carrying with them a long and proud tradition of hockey’s finest-ever players and a history of four World Cups and three Olympic medals.
It should not be India’s decision to take that spectacle away from those who love the game; frivolous politicians and bureaucrats should have no say in the fate of sport.
The colts had recently finished runners-up in the Sultan of Johor Cup — arguably the second most prestigious junior hockey tournament after the World Cup — and they were working harder than ever to go one step further in India.
The sun would barely have risen when the players took to the lush green Johar Town AstroTurf at 06:30 in the morning. Hungry, tired and surely a little groggy, they jogged out onto the field and under the supervision of head coach Tahir Zaman, promptly started their rigorous fitness regime. With their eyes set firmly on the World Cup, the players had been pushed to their very limits.
“We knew we would be up against players who had been practicing together for three years. We have been training together for just one year, so competing with them on a technical and tactical level would be impossible,” said Zaman. “We decided to focus on our fitness, since that can be improved upon the quickest, and make up for our lack of skill by running more than the other team.”
And so the young men spent countless gruelling hours under the watchful eyes of nutritionists and fitness trainers, painfully and slowly being transformed into lean and mean machines.
Zaman also revealed the eye for detail that had gone in their preparations for the tournament. “Our first match is against Holland,” he had said. “The boys have seen everything about them and already know their strengths and weaknesses. We have pointed them out in videos and we then carry out drills to show how to counter their strengths and exploits their weaknesses.”
Pakistan knew that winning that first game was important. “I have already told the players that losing to Holland in the first game means that their tournament is virtually over,” said Zaman.
Despite any fault of their own, the tournament is now well and truly over, even before it ever began. All those hours of hard work, planning and sacrifices have now gone to waste. The realisation that it was all for nothing is a blow crueller than any sportsman should ever have to endure.
Zaman had admitted that his players are hot-headed and get carried away by the passion and adrenaline that surges through their young bodies when they hold those curved sticks in their hands. To deny them the right to play the sport they so love at the biggest stage, to take away this purest of joy, to mix politics and sport, is akin to heresy.
The effect that this will have on the players, all still of impressionable ages, is anyone’s guess. Sport is meant to build bridges, but this will only burn them. It sends across the ugly message that, on the Wagah border, the line between an enemy and a rival has been blurred beyond repair.
The world and the player’s careers do not end here; their journey has just begun. But these talented young boys have been exposed to the politics of divide — carried out by men who are both untalented and petty — way too soon in their lives. Like Ibrahimovic before them, they can look straight across the border and proudly proclaim: “A World Cup without me is nothing to watch.”