What's killing Pakistan hockey?

Pakistan's players look on during the Group A match of the World League semi-final against India in Brasschaat, Belgium, on June 26, 2015. LUC CLAESSEN/AFP/Getty Images

Few international hockey teams have a history as storied as the Pakistan men's side. Four World Cup titles, the most by any nation in the history of the sport. Three Olympic gold medals, including the first to break the six consecutive golds won by neighbours and arch rivals India.

For anyone growing up watching hockey, as recently as during the 1990s, few teams personified big-match temperament and swagger like the Pakistanis.

Today, though, that swagger has faded, and the entire edifice on which Pakistan hockey rests, lies teetering on the edge. For a nation with three Olympic golds, and consecutive appearances at the Games between 1948 and 2012 (broken only by a boycott in 1980), they run the risk of a heavy decline.

A week ago, on January 23, Pakistan cited "inevitable circumstances" in withdrawing from their first four games in the Pro League -- the League only launched earlier this month by the International Hockey Federation (FIH). The FIH responded by ejecting them from the nine-team event, with the possibility of a year-long ban and monetary fines.

'Water above our heads now'

The FIH told ESPN that it will make a "thorough analysis" before taking "appropriate decisions". However, even without any sanctions, 12th-ranked Pakistan have made their own road to qualification for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics very rocky.

The Pakistan Hockey Federation (PHF) itself is in a tailspin. Former captain and secretary Shahbaz Ahmed has handed in his resignation, but the president Khalid Sajjad Khokhar is yet to accept it. Former Olympians have urged prime minister and former World Cup-winning cricketer Imran Khan to intervene, especially given the serial nature of PHF's financial woes in recent months. ESPN repeatedly reached out to Ahmed and other PHF officials for their comments on the current situation, but received no response.

Pakistan hockey's financial struggles aren't new: When Pakistan shared the Asian Champions Trophy crown with India in Muscat last October, they were able to continue living in their hotel before the final only because the Embassy intervened and helped settle all the PHF's pending bills. A month on, they were able to travel to Bhubaneswar for the World Cup only when the Haier group, associated with cricket's Peshawar Zalmi franchise, came forward and helped with funds.

"Paani ab sar se guzar chuka hai (the water is above our heads now)", says former striker Shakeel Abbasi, who had a 13-year career with Pakistan. It is like his country's hockey is drowning.

'Last nail in the coffin'

There is no doubt in the minds of former players where the fault lies.

Former goalkeeper Salman Akbar calls the FIH suspension from the Pro League "a full stop to the sentence that hockey administration has been in Pakistan." Akbar, whose 250 caps for Pakistan include the 2004 and 2008 Olympics, says, "These events were expected with the way things were happening for the last few years. This is just a continuity of that, and this [withdrawal] is kind of the last nail in the coffin."

The FIH's home-and-away Pro League, launched in 2017, was initially supposed to see Scotland host the home games for Pakistan, before those matches were shifted and redistributed between Argentina, Belgium, England, Germany and the Netherlands. With expected costs of 30,000,000 Pakistan rupees (approx. $650,000), ESPN understands the PHF was always going to find it difficult to fund their travel and accommodation for the six-month-long league.

Pakistan's most-capped player Waseem Ahmed, whose 410 appearances are bettered only by three others in men's hockey, slammed the PHF for their "incompetence" and "mismanagement".

"They have received funds in the past, but haven't utilised it properly, nor planned how to get sponsors on board on a regular basis. Before every big tournament, they start talking about shortage of funds and asking the government to intervene. How have they never learnt how to manage their finances properly? This mismanagement is down to the federation."

According to Waseem, finances were never a problem during his playing time (1996-2013), when Pakistan could send junior teams on Europe tours "four or five times a year" while the senior team had even more exposure tours.

Akbar agrees with that assessment.

"Events like World Cup, Asian Games, Pro League aren't announced overnight, and you have to budget for them," he said. "Domestic structure and job security for the players is just not in place. There's no system or platform for players to go from U-16, U-18, U-21 to senior team. It's all musical chairs -- the same faces resign and return."

'Why should anyone in Pakistan take up hockey?'

Former players agree that the worst sufferers of the withdrawal are the current crop. Pakistan had named a new-look 26-member squad for the Pro League, with 12 players yet to earn an international cap, and nine teenagers. The oldest member of the Pro League squad was goalkeeper Ali Haider, 24. Midfielder Ali Shan was to lead the team, coached by 1994 World Cup-winning coach Saeed Khan.

"I think we should learn a lesson from India and imbibe how they have improved steadily," says Abbasi, whose international career ran almost parallel to Sardar Singh, who retired in 2018.

While Sardar has a steady job as deputy superintendent with the Haryana Police and was one of the highest-paid players in the Hockey India League, Abbasi doesn't have a job to go back to since his last international in 2016, and now lives in relative anonymity in Rawalpindi.

"Something good is being done for hockey in India -- players are given more prominence, and we in Pakistan are so happy for them. In Pakistan, all departmental hockey is dying out.

"I have played three Olympics, scored 200 goals in nearly 400 matches, but I am jobless. How do I tell an aspiring player to take up hockey then?"

Who can solve this crisis?

The financial freeze for the PHF, it is understood, comes on the back of a lapsed release of funds from the previous government. The current government under Imran, which came to power in August 2018, has opened an audit on previous payments.

Pakistan stood to gain much from participation in the Pro League, with ranking points on offer. There was every likelihood that even a last-place finish would send them into the top 10 of the world. The possibility of sanctions now places question marks over their Olympic qualification, which the team also missed out on for Rio 2016.

Akbar appeals to Imran himself because "he has been a sportsperson himself... our hockey administration needs to rid itself of ex-Olympians. I personally feel they should be banned from all hockey activities, and replaced by professionals from the corporate sector," says Akbar. He traces the poor administration of the sport to over a decade ago, from when ex-hockey players took over administrative duties, starting in 2005 with the replacement of General Aziz Khan as the PHF president.

Aziz's era as president, Akbar says, had led to the appointment of Dutchman Roelant Oltmans as the country's first foreign coach along with a stable domestic structure that consistently churned out good players. During that time, Lahore also hosted the Champions Trophy

Abbasi is more scathing when asked about the way forward, especially if the FIH sanctions come through.

"Our prime minister, who has been a successful sportsperson himself, needs to intervene, because hockey is our national sport and our national identity. Hockey is as valuable to us as our national monuments and other symbols of Pakistan," he says.

"These officials should step aside themselves, because they keep talking about saving hockey and they themselves are responsible for the situation the game is in today."

Otherwise, the light at the end of the tunnel will remain painfully far for Pakistan hockey.

(With inputs from Umar Farooq in Pakistan)