Will Pakistan ever reclaim its lost hockey glory?

The Green Shirts have failed to qualify for three Olympics in a row

People who follow field hockey know that Pakistan have a long list of achievements in the sport but things have taken a turn for the worse in the past decade or so. What started as a gradual decline has now gone into freefall but the alarming thing is that nothing is being done to arrest the downfall.

A similar story unfolded at the Paris Olympics Qualifiers in Muscat, Oman, recently where Pakistan finished fourth and were unable to qualify for the prestigious event.

The latest setback means that the Pakistan hockey team will be on the sidelines during the Olympics for the third time in a row after missing out in 2016 and 2020 as well.

Pakistan also faced the humiliation of missing a World Cup for the first time in their history back in 2014. They also failed to qualify for the mega event last year.

Pakistan have eight medals at the Olympics, including three gold, while also winning the World Cup four times, which is the most for a single team in the history of the sport.

However, the last 10 years have been forgettable for hockey in Pakistan.

Pakistan at mega event in last 10 years

2014 World Cup
Didn’t qualify
2016 Olympics
Didn’t qualify
2018 World Cup
Finished in 12th place
2020 Olympics
Didn’t qualify
2023 World Cup
 Didn’t qualify
2024 Olympics
Didn’t qualify

The poor performance in the international arena, over the past decade, has also significantly reduced interest in hockey in Pakistan even though it is the country’s national sport.

There are a plethora of things that have resulted in Pakistan hockey going from bad to worse. From political appointments in the Pakistan Hockey Federation and lack of funds to failure to adapt to modern hockey and instability in selection and coaching, the sport is in a complete mess.

And on top of all of that, players have not been paid on time over the years. The current squad is also suffering due to the same issue since they playing without being paid for the last six months.

"People want us to win but they don't know what players have to deal with on a daily basis. I will never cry in front of everyone and talk about the injustice to hockey players in Pakistan, but we are heartbroken,” said Pakistan captain Ammad Butt.

"I want to tell you that the boys haven’t been paid for the last 6 months. The boys are giving 100 percent and their blood and sweat for Pakistan but the way we are treated it’s totally unfair."

Allegations of financial embezzlement against PHF have been rife in the past as well but concrete steps have not been taken, despite the government ordering an audit on multiple occasions in the past, to hold officials accountable.

Sponsors are also reluctant to come on board due to PHF’s poor reputation coupled with the fact that proper marketing isn’t done to generate more revenue streams.

Other federations in the world generate their income, by organising tournaments and other activities, rather than solely relying on government funding like the PHF.

The deplorable situation has forced players to resort to other means to earn a living, like working as drivers for ride-hailing businesses, while some left Pakistan hockey to play leagues abroad.

Additionally, not participating in the FIH Pro League means that there aren’t enough matches for Pakistan against quality sides in the world.

Pakistan were thrown out of the inaugural edition of the FIH Pro League in 2019 after they failed to send their team due to funding issues.

The fifth edition of the FIH Pro League is currently in progress but Pakistan are yet to make even a single appearance.

Meanwhile, lack of funds leads to the absence of tours to European countries which deprives players of much-needed experience.

Unlike top hockey nations all over the world, Pakistan also doesn’t have a proper hockey league, which runs for six to eight months every year, where players can hone their skills and stay competitive.

Only one player, captain Ammad Butt, in Pakistan’s 18-member squad, had more than 100 caps with 144 against his name during the recently-concluded Paris Olympics Qualifiers. Abu Bakar Mahmood had 76 while the rest were all below 50 caps.

Out of a total of eight teams in the Oman qualifiers, only the China squad had fewer caps than Pakistan, who registered one win, one draw and three losses in five matches.

Pakistan still has some very talented players at its disposal, don’t think so? Go check out that goal by Ammad during the match against Malaysia in the qualifiers. However, a moment of brilliance can only take you so far in today as even a small error on the field can prove detrimental to the team’s chances.

This is where coaching comes into the equation but lack of consistency in this regard has made it difficult for players to adapt to the demands of modern-day hockey.

For the Olympic Qualifiers, coaching appointments were made in December, less than one month before the event. Rather than sticking with the experience of renowned Dutchman Roelant Oltmans, Pakistan turned to Shahnaz Shaikh whose tactics left Pakistan players in the lurch during crucial moments of matches.

At times when they needed guidance from the coaching staff regarding in-game management, the players seemed clueless on the pitch. This was especially evident when they needed to close out the must-win third-fourth-place match against New Zealand.

Earlier, Siegfried Aikman had resigned in May last year after not being paid for more than a year.

The Dutch was roped in as Pakistan coach till 2026 in December 2021. He had previously served as coach of the Japanese team, which stunned the world by winning the Asian Games title in 2018.

However, the way the PHF treated him gave a poor impression of Pakistan to the world and made it tough to attract top foreign coaches.

Meanwhile, the outdated methods used by coaches, and locals more often than not, supplemented by a lack of knowledge about nutrients or pre and post-match meals, among other things, are quickly increasing the gap between Pakistan and other teams in the world.

Pakistan hockey desperately needs professionals, who have done proper coaching courses, have degrees in sports management and know how modern hockey works, working with the players.

Pakistan are also behind in terms of sports science which has made it difficult for the team and its players to keep pace with the rest of the world.

A sports scientist regularly works with players and coaches to provide scientific support in terms of training, injury prevention, technical analysis, nutrition and mental health issues.

Going forward, Pakistan hockey should have a department of performance science to ensure athletes and coaches perform at the highest level.

A leaf out of Belgium's book

But all hope is not lost especially if the Pakistan Hockey Federation gets its house in order and initiates long-term planning for the betterment of the game.

If the PHF is looking for inspiration, the example of Belgium is a suitable one in this regard.

Belgium didn’t qualify for three out of four world cups between 1998 and 2010, while also not featuring in any of the Olympics between 1980 and 2004.

However, the Royal Belgian Hockey Association (RBHA) buckled down in the early 2000s and introduced programs for high-performance, grassroots and club hockey to lay the platforms for their revival.

The 'BE-GOLD' project helped players in the U21 category work on the technical, tactical, mental, physical and emotional aspects of their game while also giving adequate importance to their studies.

With focus and determination, Belgium hockey started achieving the desired results at the international level after a few years.

They won a silver medal in the 2016 Olympics, followed by a gold in the 2018 World Cup. In the 2020 Olympics, they clinched gold, while also claiming silver in the 2023 World Cup. Meanwhile, between 2019 and 2023, Belgium won the FIH Pro League once and remained runners-up twice.

If Pakistan wants to regain its lost status, it needs to follow the blueprint for success laid out by successful hockey nations like Belgium.

Pakistan hockey might be at rock bottom at the moment but it could take solace in the fact that when you are down the only way back is up.

Muneeb Farrukh is a staffer at Geosuper.tv. He posts @Muneeb313_

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