How Pakistan hockey went from world-beaters to Olympic absentees
Pakistan has won a record four hockey World Cups but its absence from Tokyo 2020 is the second time the team has missed the Olympics.
Shakeel Abbasi remembers the times he donned the Pakistan national hockey team jersey.
Once a prolific striker of the men’s side, Abbasi now feels he made a “big mistake” in taking hockey on as a career when, he says, many options were open to him as a promising athlete.
“I made a big mistake by picking hockey over cricket. I was very good in both but I preferred our national sport [hockey]. Sometimes, I feel it was a big mistake,” Abbasi, a three-time Olympian, told Al Jazeera.
The 37-year-old seasoned centre-forward, once regarded as one of the best young strikers in world hockey, is able to just about make ends meet now by playing professional hockey leagues in England, the Netherlands and Malaysia.
“Even those leagues are not taking place due to the coronavirus pandemic. These definitely are testing times for me because one needs money to survive,” he said.
“This is happening to a player who has served his country for years, played in three Olympics, two World Cups and eight Champions Trophy tournaments. I pity the kids when I see them playing hockey.”
Abbasi, born the year Pakistan clinched the last of its three Olympic gold medals (Los Angeles 1984), won several medals while representing the national team more than 300 times from 2003 to 2014.
Absent from Tokyo 2020
But such is the state of hockey in Pakistan that the former captain is not alone in his struggles.
Pakistan has suffered a shocking and continuous decline from being consistently among the top four to languishing at 18th in the latest rankings.
The Tokyo Olympics are the second consecutive time that Pakistan have missed the multi-sport event. It also failed to qualify for the 2014 World Cup for the first time in history and finished a dismal 12th in the 2018 edition.
For a country that has won three Olympic golds and a record four World Cup titles, missing out on back-to-back Olympic Games is nothing less than a catastrophe for the followers.
“It’s heartbreaking to see Pakistan hockey in its current state,” hockey fan Moezuddin Qureshi, 51, told Al Jazeera.
“Pakistan’s national anthem played to honour the gold-winning team at the Olympics remains my best memory. It used to be a matter of huge pride for us. We grew up playing hockey on the streets but now our kids know nothing about the sport because we are nowhere to be seen in a sport that we ruled for decades.”
Some fans and experts have concluded that Pakistan hockey is “dead” while others, showing minor optimism at best, consider it to be “on a ventilator”.
Pakistan began its Olympic journey with a silver in Melbourne 1956, before going one better four years later in Rome, breaking India’s streak of six straight gold medals.
Two silver medals and one gold followed in the next three Olympics before a bronze in 1976 as the team consolidated its position among the superpowers.
Its first missed podium came at Seoul 1988 before it managed a bronze medal in Barcelona four years later – their last Olympic medal to date.
‘Failure to adapt with modern hockey’
Pakistan hockey’s decline started in the 1980s.
Some experts believe the introduction of artificial turf in the 1970s started to affect the performance of Pakistani and Indian players. Both were labelled the “kings of grass”.
The game evolved over the years, demanding better fitness but analysts say Pakistan were left behind in the race.
Cricket, the most popular sport in the country, is also blamed for hockey’s fall after many schools and educational institutes replaced hockey outfits with cricket.
Pakistan Hockey Federation (PHF) officials have faced allegations of embezzlement and misuse of government funds besides being widely criticised for poor planning.
The “legends” that took Pakistan to glory in the past have also been accused of selfish behaviour by analysts.
“Our former players continuously opposed appointments of foreign coaches but when they got opportunities to coach the national team, they failed repeatedly. Our failure to adapt with modern hockey has affected us a lot,” Sardar Khan, sports journalist and former hockey commentator, told Al Jazeera.
“Foreign coaches were hired to help Pakistan adapt with modern hockey but they did not get enough time due to opposition from former players.
“The PHF also didn’t manage hockey properly. They did not give opportunities to players on merit. I remember we [the media] had to raise our voice for even Sohail Abbas [record international goal scorer with 348 goals] to get him into the team,” said Khan before ruling out cricket’s popularity as a reason for hockey’s demise in Pakistan.
“Popularity of cricket is in no way a reason because cricket always had more commercial value than field hockey.”
Meanwhile, Samiullah Khan, who played in the “Golden Era”, conceded that former players were unable to serve Pakistan hockey well but outlined a number of other factors for the current state of the sport in the country.
“Many former players have bargained for positions [in the PHF] but that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” Samiullah, famously known as the “Flying Horse”, told Al Jazeera.
“We are missing dynamic officials to lead the PHF. In our time as players, we were lucky to have such officials who sincerely worked for the game. Politics at club level has also ruined the sport.
“Funds, which PHF used to get, were not utilised in the right manner. We don’t have modern equipment. Venues in big cities like Karachi were centralised, making them inaccessible to local players.”
But the former captain remains optimistic about Pakistan being able to regain its lost status.
“If we work hard and manage hockey properly, we can see significant results within four years. Talent still exists but the government must patronise the game like it used to be in the past. Departments must give jobs to hockey players, who must be safeguarded financially.
“There is a need to initiate hockey leagues in our own country by bringing sponsors to ensure financial incentives for players.”
Abbasi echoed those views, terming the introduction of leagues crucial for the revival of hockey in the country.
“It needs efforts from the PHF but for that, we need competent officials on the top which is not the case right now,” he said.
Retired Brigadier Khalid Sajjad Khokhar is the current PHF president, holding the post since 2015, while former player Asif Bajwa is serving as a secretary since 2019, in his second term in the office.
Despite the results, performance and ranking, Bajwa, who represented Pakistan from 1991 to 1996, argued hockey is not in a hopeless state.
“We may be 18th on paper but we are technically still a number-eight side,” Bajwa told Al Jazeera.
“Pakistan’s dramatic drop in the rankings was caused after the interim PHF officials decided to skip matches of the 2019 Pro Hockey League. It was a disastrous decision. We were handed points penalty and a huge fine by the FIH [hockey’s world governing body] which is why we failed to qualify for Tokyo Olympics,” he said.
But Bajwa, who also served in the same post from 2008 to 2013, admitted a lot of work was needed to bring the game back on track.
“Firstly, our players need international exposure which requires travelling. We need funds for that but we are not as rich as our cricket board.
“Hockey has also become an expensive sport. Changes like replacing wooden sticks with graphite sticks have increased the costs. Astroturf too requires a lot of funding.
“A lot is being planned to uplift our domestic hockey. We are working with provincial governments and working on establishing centres at regional level. We will soon start working on promotion of the game in schools.
“We also have plans to start leagues,” he said.
“Hockey is in our blood. Once this pandemic is over and things start getting back on track, we will definitely make a turnaround.”
But former Pakistan goalkeeper Imran Butt, who played international hockey from 2009 to 2018, remains unconvinced.
“It is high time we move away from illusions and accept the reality. If we had played more matches, we could have gone further down in the rankings,” Butt told Al Jazeera.
“The PHF must come up with a good plan for the benefit of the players. Only the implementation of a proper plan is the way forward for us.
“The PHF must work for hockey because only lip service would not take us anywhere.”