Three days every week, as many as 70 youngsters fill up the pitch at the Dar Hockey Academy in Lahore. Run by Olympian Tauqir Dar, the academy offers training for free from Thursday to Saturday with the hope of finding Pakistan’s next generation of world beaters.
For now, for all their hopes and aspirations, the future doesn’t hold much hope.
Of course, there is little these youngsters can look forward to with the once all-conquering Pakistan side having now become also-rans of world hockey.
When the 2020 Tokyo Olympics opened this year in the last week of July, it marked the second consecutive time that three-time gold medallists Pakistan had failed to reach the Games.
“It was a painful day for me … watching the opening ceremony on television,” Pakistan right-back Abu Bakar Mahmood told Dawn.
It was the achievements of national teams of the eras gone by, when the question was where Pakistan would finish rather than whether they would qualify, that inspired the 23-year-old Abu Bakar to take up the sport as a career.
While the Olympic hockey tournament was going on in Tokyo, Abu Bakar and several other national team players were playing the Azadi Cup in Rawalpindi’s Ayub Park.
It was a far cry from where the players like Abu Bakar had hoped to be when they started off playing. The Azadi Cup was set to spark a flurry of domestic events for the players and was to be followed by the Chief of Naval Staff Cup in Karachi.
That event is yet to start and Pakistan’s hockey players are waiting for action again.
The national team hasn’t played an international match since 2019 and missed out on the Olympics after lack of funding meant it couldn’t take part in the FIH Hockey Pro League.
“Our hockey needs investment, maximum participation in international events and proper patronage of government,” Abu Bakar regretted after he led National Bank of Pakistan to the Azadi Cup title.
For him, Pakistan’s road to Paris for the 2024 Games starts now and there will be another Olympic heartache that if funds aren’t provided for training and international events.
Tauqir, a member of Pakistan’s gold medal-winning team at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, echoes Abu Bakar’s thoughts.
“We have been hearing allegations of corruption on office-bearers of the Pakistan Hockey Federation for quite some time yet there has been no accountability,” Tauqir told Dawn at his academy as youngsters trained in the background.
“Until everyone is not held accountable, the corporate sector will not trust the PHF to sponsor hockey,” added the 57-year-old who runs his academy with the support of the corporate sector with even the equipment coming from sports goods manufacturing companies of Sialkot.
Naturally, for everyone involved with hockey, there are sweet reminisces of Pakistan’s glory days with the national team also winning the World Cup a record four times.
In 2018, Pakistan only made it to the World Cup after the field was increased with the national team having missed out on the previous edition.
As the rules of the game changed over the years, including the scrapping of the offside rule, Pakistan failed to catch up with the world. Administrators. who were there only to enjoy perks and privileges, didn’t help either.
In the intervening years since Pakistan’s last World Cup title in 1994, other countries stepped up and worked on all aspects of the game while Pakistan kept falling backwards.
Modern methods of coaching and fitness were never introduced. As interest dwindled, the funds dried up and left PHF asking for funding to participate in every tournament.
“Had we participated in the FIH Pro League, we might have made it to the Olympics,” lamented Tauqir. “An inquiry must be initiated to find out the reasons for our withdrawal.”
Abu Bakar holds the same view despite Pakistan now a lowly 18th in the FIH world rankings.
“We still have skilled players and that can be seen at domestic events,” he said. “All we need to do is give them good training and international exposure and we can return the team to its former glories.”
Tauqir regretted the fact that hockey standards had kept falling despite Prime Minister Imran Khan having been an accomplished sportsman himself.
Dawn has learnt that the government, which is looking to implement a new sports policy to bring forth a sporting revival in the country, is going to fund federations only if there is greater accountability. It is also looking to force the ouster of longtime Pakistan Olympic Association chief retired Lt Gen Arif Hasan.
Tauqir admitted that while the POA was “only a symbolic body” whose job was to uphold the Olympic Charter in the country, there was still a need for “fresh faces to come in … people who have interest in sports or can bring corporate investment for athletes”.
In India, there has not only been investment from the government in hockey but the Indian Olympic Association also arranged for a support grant for its hockey teams from the Olympic Solidarity Programme.
It helped India end a 41-year medal drought in Tokyo when they won bronze. Pakistan last won a medal at the Olympics in 1992.
“We can match India on the field when we play,” said Abu Bakar. “But the amount of money that is being spent there on hockey is huge and unless there are efforts made here, we will only fall behind them.”
Tauqir says there is still time to make amends.
“There is a need to have the right people at the right posts,” he said, saying that missing out on two Olympics should be a wake-up call.
“There is still time to salvage the situation and rescue the game from complete collapse. We need sincere efforts to revive the sport at school and college levels.
“Those who are willing to play and pursue a career in hockey cannot afford the equipment but I believe something can be done regarding that. It isn’t that difficult.”
At his academy, Tauqir is showing how things can be done.
“It’s all about keeping the interest alive,” he says. “If the youth that is
still interested in hockey loses that interest, it will be difficult to return to our glorious past.”