“This is Shahbaz, leaving everyone in his wake, Shahbaz. How good is he? He good is he!”
The commentators shouted in awe as the former Pakistan captain treaded through opposition en route goal. He was not able to score on that particular run but it was a move that aptly described Pakistan’s status in world hockey at that moment.
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He was good, Shahbaz, as he led Pakistan to their last World Cup gold – in 1994. When the latest edition of the tournament kicks off in The Hague on Saturday, the only major team missing from the participants’ list will be Pakistan, the most successful nation in the history of the sport.
|Pakistan’s hockey medals
| G S B Total
Olympic 3 3 2 8
World Cup 4 2 0 6
Champions Trophy 3 6 7 16
Asian Games 8 2 3 13
Asia Cup 3 3 2 8
Azlan Shah Cup 3 6 2 11
Commonwealth Games 0 1 1 2
Asian Champions Trophy 2 1 0 3
Hockey, Pakistan’s national sport, is in a dismal state. Lack of talent, poor facilities, infighting within the various factions and government interference has rendered the game useless in a nation that dared not step outside their houses when Shahbaz took the field. Pakistan have won the World Cup more than any other team, they were the pioneers of the Champions Trophy and former captain Sohail Abbas holds the record for most goals in the game’s history.
But apart from an Asian Games gold four years ago, not much has gone right for Pakistan hockey since Shahbaz lifted the trophy two decades ago. Where have the authorities gone wrong then?
“We are lagging behind right from the grass-root levels,” Hassan Sardar, an Olympic gold-winning captain, told Al Jazeera. “In our time, we had school teams, we had hockey grounds and even thought it wasn’t organised, it gave space for hockey talent to grow.
“Colleges and universities offered scholarships and admissions based on your hockey skills and that became an added incentive to take up the sport. That system is no more. There are no jobs available either and that has contributed significantly to the fall of hockey in Pakistan.”
Lack of inspiration
Pakistan have racked up a whopping 67 medals at major international hockey tournaments and have numerous player-of-the-tournament awards to go with those. But how many of those will we see in the near future, asks Sardar, as he reminisces about his childhood days, growing up watching his team on the podium.
“When we were young, we used to watch our team play and win World Cups and Olympic Games. Kids don’t see that anymore. There is no inspiration for them to take up hockey.”
Pakistan finished bottom of the list in the 2010 World Cup and seventh in the 2012 London Olympics. Players were sacked – before being recalled – while the management and coaching panel was reshuffled. A Dutch coach was hired, former Olympians’ think-tank was formed and retired players were brought back into the fray. In the long-term, not much mattered as the performance and the ranking showed the true state of the sport.
Now, a new-look Pakistan Hockey Federation (PHF) and team management – formed after Pakistan’s failure at World Cup qualification – sees several former greats appointed in key position. Islahuddin, who was the most vocal against the former setup, was named team manager, Shahnaz Sheikh was appointed coach while Tahir Zaman has been handed the Director Coaching Programme.
“These names were chosen because we believe they are fully capable of improving our teams given their experience,” PHF Secretary Rana Mujahid, who replaced Asif Bajwa last year, said. “We won’t be setting any targets as such. The ultimate goal is for the new selection committee and team management is to improve our rankings and bring results that we seek.”
The head-hunting, added Mujahid, will continue as the PHF continues to seek more Olympians to join their ranks, especially the ones that had been vocal against the previous setup’s failures.
Although Pakistan’s next target is the Asian Games that takes place from September 19, it is only a slow journey back to where most greats say Pakistan belongs: on a podium at a hockey world cup.