Pakistan's glorious relationship with the men's Hockey World Cup can only be matched by India and their tryst with the Summer Olympics. No country has won more Olympic gold medals " eight " in hockey than India. No nation has won more World Cups " four " than Pakistan. There's also an aspect of similarity with regard to their decline in the sport. India last won an Olympic medal in 1980 while Pakistan's last World Cup triumph came in 1994. India's suffering was encapsulated by its failure to make the cut for the 2008 Beijing Olympics and its last-place finish at London 2012. Across the border, Pakistan, too, did not qualify for the 2014 World Cup and missed the bus for the 2016 Rio Olympics.
India, though, are on the mend, improving significantly post the 2008 and 2012 debacles, " they are currently ranked No 5 going into the World Cup in Bhubaneswar. For Pakistan, it seems the wait will be longer.
"India and Pakistan had been facing the same set of problems. But since the last 10 years or so, India have improved their domestic structure like introducing the professional Hockey India League. Also, both countries lacked consistency, whether it's about appointment of coaches or setting up of domestic competitions. But India are better organised now and that's why they are improving. Pakistan are still working on this and hopefully, we'll be back on track in coming few years," former Pakistan player and part of the 1994 World Cup-winning side, Tahir Zaman, told Firstpost in an exclusive chat.
Lack of a proper domestic structure and a system of rewards seems to be a biggest worry for Pakistan hockey. Former player and current assistant coach of the team, Rehan Butt, thinks earlier, apart from playing hockey, players used to see the sport as means of securing a decent job with various government organisations. If they could not make it to the top, at least players had the security of a job. That aspect has been missing in the Pakistan hockey in recent times.
"I started playing hockey thinking I'll get a decent job and my family members will be happy. Right now, the government departments in Pakistan have stopped giving jobs for hockey players. So youngsters don't see their future in hockey, considering there are no rewards," Butt said.
He went on to add, "Even in the last meeting with the federation, we have discussed this issue and concluded that unless government jobs are not provided for hockey players, things will not change much. See, the young generation in Pakistan are not attracted to hockey anymore. Currently, most of our talent comes from villages because they are not aware of this situation. Youngsters from big cities like Karachi and Lahore have stopped playing hockey because they are not sure whether hockey can give them a future."
Butt also talks about the importance of a quality domestic competitions. Like Zaman, he too spoke highly of the HIL and how it spurred an improvement in the quality of the Indian hockey team. "Look at what happened in India when foreign players participated in the league and helped it to develop. Something similar should happen in Pakistan," Butt said.
Hasan Sardar, considered as one of the best centre-forwards that Pakistan has ever produced, is also of the opinion that majority of the youngsters from big cities have stopped playing the game because their priorities have changed. "Youngsters from cities like Karachi do not prioritise hockey anymore. Even schools have stopped encouraging students. That's very unfortunate because schools should have good training centres." Sardar, who is also the manager of the current Pakistan team, went on add that the talent in Pakistan mostly comes from Punjab because of the good grassroots facilities.
Zaman also laid emphasis on the technical aspects of the game where both India and Pakistan lacked and those certainly played a part in their struggles. Hockey became one of the fastest sports in the world thanks to certain changes in the game, like the self-pass and the no offside rules. Physical fitness of players became a vital tool for succeeding in the game, and that's where both countries initially faced problems.
"When the dimensions of the game were changing 20 years back, we couldn't figure it out in which direction the game was going. Like the self pass rule. With that one rule, the game changed rapidly. The reaction of times of both attacking and defensive players became vital. Also, with the no offside rule, players, on an average, run more than 10 kilometres, so the physical fitness element became critical in the game," Zaman said.
Zaman suggests that the ultimate goal should be more holistic development of the sport in Pakistan, starting with restructuring at the grassroots levels and also improving the coaching standards. "We should regularly conduct coaching education programmes for our local coaches so that they can improve things at the grassroots level. This should be a long-lasting project and not something on an ad hoc basis. Unless there are quality coaches at the lowest level, things will not improve much at the national level," Zaman said.
Sardar sounded more optimistic about the revival of hockey in Pakistan, especially now because of country's new Prime Minister. "Imran Khan is a great sportsman, and he has ordered all the various boards to revive the game of hockey, focussing on development from the grassroots. So I'm hopeful."
Pakistan's issues with hockey are not limited to the grassroots stage. Weeks before start of the World Cup, Pakistan's national team faced uncertainty over their participation in the global event. Pakistan Hockey Federation struggled to arrange the required funds for the national team to travel to Bhubaneswar. The federation asked for help from the government, and the cricket board, but the request was denied. Finally, Javed Afridi, the owner of the Pakistan Super League franchise Peshawar Zalmi, bailed them out with a new sponsorship deal.
Pakistan have an humongous task at their hands " to revive the national sport of the country might take a few more years. But for now, for the next two weeks, Pakistan will look to defy odds and make it as far possible in the tournament. This might not signal a resurrection of the sport in the country, but at least, there will be a feeling of hope among Pakistan's hockey fans.