KARACHI: How to destroy the experience of a penalty shootout? The thrill of the split-second make-or-break shot, the slowing of time as the taker looks into the eye of the keeper before calmly slotting it home, the exhilaration of a penalty well saved and the slight reliance on lady luck.
The International Hockey Federation (FIH) answered that when they changed the rules in 2011. The shootout is now a shuffle; and the game as a whole must now pay the penalty.
For many in Pakistan, the change in rules went under the radar for three years, until it hit the nation all too clearly in the Asian Games final when the Greenshirts squandered their gold to India in the penalty shuffle.
The loss was disappointing, but perhaps what hit home more was that the experience of watching a classic penalty shootout is now maybe forever lost.
Some things are better left untouched and when the FIH tried to fix something that wasn’t broken, they managed to destroy an integral part of the sport.
Earlier this year, veteran hockey player Abdul Waheed Khan – part of the squad that won Pakistan their first ever Olympic gold in 1960 – told me how changing one aspect of the game drastically can be fatal to that sport. Hockey is now a perfect example.
More than a hundred rules have been changed since the 1960s. For comparison, the most popular sport in the world, football, has had almost no change to its basic elements.
So the question that now arises is; why would the FIH change the penalty shootout?
And perhaps more importantly, why didn’t the Indian and Pakistani hockey federations object to this idea? The two countries have dominated the sport – their national sport – for the better part of a century and have surely the most to lose with this nonsensical change in rules.
So where exactly did the penalty shuffle come from? Its most popular adaptation is employed in ice hockey; a sport that has little popularity outside of Northern America and almost none in Asia.
The shuffle values the player’s technical aspects and pits the goalkeeper in a one-on-one with the taker. The shootout, however, was more raw; it was a battle of steely nerves, a psychological chess game with even a slight involvement of lady luck.
The simple shootout is gone and with it, a little bit of hockey’s raw intensity that set it apart from other sports. Now, the penalties are more like mini eight-second matches after the final whistle.
The players have been disadvantaged just as much as the viewers. According to Pakistan coach Shahnaz Shekih, the team was involved in its first ever penalty shuffles in the Asian Games. And even at the Games, they had no reference point as how to take on the Indians, who had never taken part in a shuffle before.
India, on the other hand, had watched Pakistan win the match on shuffles against Malaysia in the semi-final, and were therefore at an advantage.
Sheikh, like Abdul Waheed, also believes hockey will no longer be the same again. Sheikh also said that due to the constant upheavals in the rules, Pakistan is struggling to keep up their aggressive approach to the game.
The coach told me that since 2011, Pakistan never took part in a single penalty shuffle before the Asian Games, but now this is the future of hockey.
However, the question that burns is that with so many changes being rung in the sport that we dominated for almost half a century, will Pakistan ever have the chance to reclaim their spot at the top again, or is hockey as Pakistan knew and loved, forever lost?
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