Hockey: Why Has Pakistan Gone From World-beaters To Olympic Absentees

“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.”

Pakistan has suffered a shocking and continuous decline from being consistently among the top four to languishing at 18th in the latest rankings. In 2015, much to the dismay of its thinning hockey fan base, Pakistan suffered an embarrassing loss at the hands of minnows Ireland. The magnitude of the loss is worrying but what is more disturbing is that the thrice gold-medallist in Olympics, hockey-playing nation did not participate in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics due to the defeat. The Tokyo Olympics are the second consecutive time that Pakistan has 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.

Pakistan hockey is too important for us to ignore. Once upon a time it helped lift the national morale whenever there was a need. It may have been overtaken by cricket in terms of popularity, but the fact remains that it’s the only sport which has earned us Olympic gold medals — three to be precise. When Pakistan’s national hockey squad landed at Karachi airport holding the glittering World Cup trophy after beating West Germany 3-1 in the final in Mumbai in the January of 1982; Thousands of exuberant hockey lovers chanted “Pakistan Zindabad”, while showering them with rose petals. Some of the elated sports lovers would hoist the players on their shoulders as the security officials had to struggle to make way for the team to hop on their bus. On December 4, 1994, Pakistan reached the pinnacle of the hockey world after winning the world cup for the fourth time. The national team was a force to reckon with and had booked a place in the annals of hockey history. The sport, for which the country was world-renowned, is now a picture of apathy. Spectator-less stadiums, no international tours, inept PHF, declining numbers of players, and a virtual media blackout are proof enough that the nation has lost interest in hockey. If things stay this way, the coming generation will wonder why hockey is our national sport. 

Failure to adapt to modernism: Some experts have concluded that Pakistan hockey is ‘dead’ while others, showing minor optimism at best, consider it to be ‘on a ventilator. Pakistan hockey’s decline started in the 1980s. Many experts believe the introduction of artificial turf in the 1970s started to affect the performance of Pakistan and Indian players. Both were labeled the ‘kings of grass’. Others would single out cricket as the biggest culprit, suggesting that its continuous rise has thrown hockey out of the public spotlight. Such complaints and suggestions come up each time Pakistan crashes to some humiliating result, be it the World Cup, Olympics, Asian Games or the Champions Trophy. Sometimes a few steps are taken but, mostly, the same mistakes are repeated again and again. Over the years, the incompetent Pakistan Hockey Federation (PHF) officials have faced allegations of embezzlement and misuse of government funds besides being widely criticized for poor planning. People attached to Pakistan hockey complain of a lack of proper infrastructure in the country. They believe that by setting up quality academies all over the country, people at the helm of national field hockey affairs can revive the lost glory.

Unless the will exists, there will never be the sort of change in Pakistan hockey that is needed to revive it. What’s needed is a revolutionary change in how we play and run the game in our country. We have to take a cue from countries like Germany and Spain who have achieved great results in spite of the fact that hockey is hardly a major sport there. It’s true that they have the infrastructure, but that’s not something that’s impossible for us to achieve. 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. What’s needed right away is a national conference on hockey, where all the stakeholders — players, officials, journalists, government institutions looking after sports — should sit together and come up with concrete and practical steps to lift the game. There can’t be any shortcuts. If we start today, the Greenshirts could go on to shine at the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris, France (Right in Europe, where we won our first gold). 

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