National game or national shame?

While cricket is attracting billions, our national game is surviving on a pittance


Kamal Siddiqi February 04, 2019
PHOTO: REUTERS/FILE

Some weeks back, Pakistan Hockey Federation (PHF) Secretary Shahbaz Ahmed Senior resigned from his position citing the government’s apathy towards the national game.

In his letter, Shahbaz argued that since the government and the inter-provincial coordination ministry had no time for hockey, he had no option but to also call it quits.

The legendary hockey star pointed out that India’s annual budget for the sport is more than Rs1 billion, whereas the annual grant for hockey in Pakistan is Rs3.5 million. While cricket is attracting billions, our national game is surviving on a pittance.

Hockey stadiums which once witnessed the roar of crowds and the wizardry of the Pakistani players have today fallen silent. The playing turfs are dirty and unkempt.

The player facilities are almost non-existent. Some argue that it is best to turn the clubs into marriage halls so that some funds can be gathered for the game. What have we reduced ourselves to?

There was a time I recall when hockey was at its prime. Our national heroes were hockey players and their game were nothing short of magic. Who can forget the gold medals won at the Olympics? Each generation of teenagers, save the present one, seem to have their favourites in players and matches.

My favourite was the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics where Pakistan secured gold after defeating Germany (in those days it was still West Germany). The green-shirts led by Manzoor Junior overcame West Germany 2-1 in the final. The top scorer was Hasan Sardar, who in my humble opinion, is one of the best players the game has ever produced, given the style he displayed in his game.

Then there was the Asia cup of 1985 in Dhaka where Kaleemullah stole the show. It was a hard-fought game where the Indian team gave us a tough time. And yet, perseverance and keeping a cool head on your shoulders won the day for Pakistan.

But these are all memories now. Since 1984, Pakistan has not won an Olympic gold. The last World Cup it won was in Sydney in 1994 - about twenty-five years ago. This was the same year that Pakistan won its last Champions Trophy.

For the last quarter of a century, Pakistan hockey has witnessed an unprecedented decline. There was some surprise in 2018, when the Pakistani team won the Asian Hockey Champions Trophy in Muscat (Oman) but that was a one-off. For that we must thank the sheer grit and determination of the players and not any planning or work done by the Hockey Federation.

Gone are the days when Pakistan was assured a berth in the semi-finals or finals of a tournament. Over the years, in some prestigious events where Pakistan was once seen as the hot favourite, the green shirts have not even managed to qualify, owing to overall poor rankings. To name a few, our national team did not qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Netherlands nor the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Not being an expert in the game or an insider in the affairs of the hockey federation, one is reluctant to point out areas that need to be addressed or steps taken to set things right. But one thing is certain – the game needs to be adequately funded and given proper priority.

To begin with, the Pakistan Hockey Federation must put its house in order. There has always been a debate over who should run the federation, and this is for the government to decide. But we need to see it going in the right direction. Funds must be secured from both the government as well as other sponsors to be able to refurbish stadiums and training facilities as well as pay the aspiring players a reasonable amount for their upkeep and expenses.

The whole system must be changed – players, training, coaches,
selectors, facilities, stadiums, tours and a proper and functioning
organisational set up. Most important, we also need to show patience
to get the desired results. If 2019 is the year this process starts, we can
expect results in at least five years of consistent follow up of this policy. Till then, hockey in Pakistan will remain a pleasant and yet distant memory for most.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 4th, 2019.

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