Asia victory ends longest title drought


TALKING SPORT: The 1994 World Cup was the last title victory for Pakistan and they had not won the Asiad gold since 1990. In fact, the greenshirts had not been able to reach the final at the Asian games since then. Astonishing as Pakistan in nine appearances till 1990 had won the gold seven times and were the silver medallists on other two occasions.
All this makes the gold medal at the 2010 Asiad a real special one. It has ended the longest title drought in Pakistan’s hockey history. The automatic qualification for the 2012 Olympics is the icing on the cake. Going to the qualifiers is depressing for a country with a pedigree as good as Pakistan.
Moreover, the players and especially the management would have been under great pressure till the qualifiers. Remember, India, the record eight time Olympic gold medallists, failed to qualify for the last Olympics. In case of Pakistan hockey not making to the Olympics, it would have been a really miserable sight to see only two or three wild card entrants behind the Pakistan flag during the opening ceremony at the 2012 Olympics; humiliating for world’s sixth most populous country.
So the year ends on a good note for Pakistan hockey after the disastrous campaigns in the World Cup and the Commonwealth Games. The 2010 Asiad campaign turned out to be a fairytale for Pakistan. Starting with overwhelming victories against lesser opponents, they went down to India, recovered to beat the two time defending champions in the semi-final via a nerve wracking penalty shoot out and then won the final against Malaysia with a planned and skilful display including some captivating short passing of vintage touch.
The management and selection committee took some courageous decisions, like recalling Sohail Abbas and Salman Akbar. Though past his prime, Sohail still is the best penalty corner option for Pakistan. And Salman was to many Pakistan’s Man of the Tournament.
In fact, the federation had been under criticism for persisting with the old guard especially after the successive failures in the title tournaments but they have been vindicated. The credit should also go to Michel van den Heuvel, the Dutch coach of the team. He cleverly utilised the rolling substitution rule to not let the old legs tire too much.
The seniors like Wasim, Sohail, Salman, Zeeshan, Rehan, Abbasi, etc. also knew that it was probably their last opportunity to figure in some meaningful victory and their body language said that.
After this success, the most immediate priority should be rewarding the players; the federal and provincial governments and also the private sector should come forward. Long term measures are more important. Well-paid jobs in PIA, Customs, banks, etc. used to be the greatest attraction for players in opting hockey as a career.
It is no longer the case, despite the ‘orders’ of two prime ministers, including the present incumbent. This is the ideal opportunity for the PHF to exhort the powers that be to revive the job quotas for hockey players.
The victory is always sweet but one should not get carried away, as luck too played its part. Pakistan lost to India for the fourth consecutive time this year, though it was a close match. In the semi-final, they scrapped past two-time defending champions only through the penalty stroke shoot out.
Then they were lucky to face Malaysia in the final, who were contesting for the Asiad gold for the first time, having won the bronze as many as six times apart from finishing fourth on four occasions. The East Asians were clearly overawed by arguably their greatest match ever.
Malaysia’s greatest strength had been penalty corner conversion. Who can forget Amin Rehman’s semi-final brace against India that turned it upside down, but the nerves didn’t hold in the final and the ball was not stopped properly in two of the three penalty corners that came Malaysia’s way. There were many other unforced errors too.
So without taking any credit from the Pakistanis, one should also make a realistic analysis. There is also the matter of senior players. Pakistan’s next major commitment would be the 2012 Olympics. Will it be wise to count on these old war horses for the mega event? It is a very difficult question.
The Olympic qualification has given breathing space to the PHF. Now they can do experimentation over next year and a half. Pakistan’s junior age group teams have been doing well recently. The under 18 squad won the junior Asia Cup in 2009 and were silver medallists at the Youth Olympics this year.
Talented players from that group can be inducted into the senior squad and assessed against quality opposition. Even if only a few of them are found up to the mark, they can help make Pakistan a fine combination by the time of the London Olympics.
Now that Pakistan is the Asian champion, the big names of world hockey would be more welcoming. Hence efforts should be made to arrange tours of top European hockey countries, Australia, etc. “We are out of the big league for quite some time. The next target should be winning the Champions Challenge in 2011 to qualify for the elite Champions trophy.”
Right now, it is the party time and the whole nation is rightly celebrating the long awaited hockey title. The serious business should follow soon.