Gold remained synonymous with Pakistani hockey for many years, while the game was considered a symbol of national pride in international sport. With the passage of time, however, signs of gradual decline appeared which later became alarming and then very difficult to control. Today, Pakistan – the former four-time world champions – are not even participating in the FIH World Cup currently being held in India and are ranked a miserable 17th in the world.
Pakistan’s global dominance of the game began with the 1960 Rome Olympics and continued through the 1970s and mid-1980s before the rot set in.
Bahawalpur-born Samiullah Khan, one of the finest wingers of his era, represented Pakistan from the mid-1970s to 1982 when the green jerseys were the giants of the game. He reckons there are many reasons for the perpetual decline in hockey.
“First and foremost, the current administration (Pakistan Hockey Federation) is not doing its job properly for the betterment of the national game. While in the past, there were very dedicated administrators at the top level like Air Marshal Nur Khan, Lt. Gen. K.M. Azhar and Air Chief Marshal Farooq Feroze Khan (all PHF presidents) as well as Brigadier Manzoor Atif, Brigadier Abdul Hamid Hameedi and Col Mudassir Asghar (Secretaries) who all proved to be very productive contributors to our hockey Olympian Samiullah, now based in Karachi, told Dawn in an exclusive interview.
“Similarly, hockey administrators at the lowest level were equally committed,” added the 71-year-old, who has two consecutive World Cup titles (1987 and 1982) to his credit. “Also, governments used to be interested in promoting the game.
“Second is the infrastructure which in the 1970s and 80s was very good. Hockey players from different parts of the country held jobs in as many as 17 departments including Wapda, PIA, Customs, Army, Police, KPT and several banks who maintained many sports in Pakistan, especially hockey, cricket and squash on a regular basis .
Gradually, Samiullah regretted, the system derailed resulting in a decline that continues to this day. The privatization of many organizations, especially banks, led to the closure of many sports departments.
“On the contrary, the top hockey playing countries like Australia, Netherlands, Germany for the last 40 years and later Belgium (current world champions, second in the FIH rankings) have continued to work to raise their hockey, which has helped them succeed in international competitions and maintain the top four. , five places in the world ranking”, he underlined. “Even India who finished a poor 12th in the 1986 World Cup had also made steady progress,” explains Samiullah, the elder brother of Kaleemullah Khan, another Pakistan gem who played alongside his brother.
Responding to a question on how much the PHF is responsible for the pathetic position the country is currently in, he said the recent slide started about 10 years ago during the previous PHF regime.
“It all started when Akhtar Rasool was president of PHF [from 2013-16]. He experimented with bringing in like-minded people – who lacked technical knowledge and love of hockey – at a lower level of the game so he could be re-elected president for another term. This resulted in genuine hockey-related persons [including players] being excluded from the system,” he said.
“Unfortunately, the PHF regime under retired Brigadier General Khalid Sajjad Khokhar (from 2016 till date) has continued with the same approach which has harmed Pakistan hockey.”
Club hockey has also not developed on the right lines, he regretted.
“Due to loopholes in the system, genuine clubs are ignored while bogus clubs are recognized by the relevant authorities who serve their own interests instead of selflessly promoting the game.”
Do the current players in the Pakistan team meet the fitness standards required at the international level?
“Not at all. They are hugely lacking in that area,” he said flatly. When asked how he would compare the fitness of players in his era to today’s, Samiullah said: “One of the main reasons why we maintain top fitness it was that we had strong strength on the bench which forced us to put in extra effort. whereas in the current era, there are hardly any substitutes for Pakistan’s top players.”
Are sponsors playing their role in protecting Pakistan hockey?
“No. There are hardly any sponsors. However, I believe they can contribute a lot to Pakistan hockey as all major international events around the world, including the ongoing World Cup, are fully sponsored as was the last Champions Trophy [held in 2018],” he said.
“Recently, two national organizations of the corporate sector supported the Pakistan national team for their international missions. However, the sponsors pull out after a short tenure only because of Pakistan’s poor ranking (17th). a permanent sponsorship comes only when a team reaches [a] ranking among the top five teams in the world. To overcome this, the government and the PHF have to do continuous work for the next four, five years.”
Answering a question about the Pakistan Hockey Super League, which was given much publicity by the Khokhar-led PHF in 2016 but whose inaugural edition was postponed several times, Samiullah opined that a hockey league in Pakistan would not be viability.
“A hockey championship was held only once in Pakistan during the Tariq Kirmani era when the national team was ranked eighth or ninth in the world. For me, a hockey league in our country has no viability unless the national team achieves a significant rise in the world rankings, rather we need to put our house in order by strengthening our own hockey structure [to achieve this goal],” he insisted.
“Now we have around 40 turfs across Pakistan which I think is more than enough to identify and groom our hockey aspirants.”