Sunday, 24 July 2016

A Notable Omission

I had made mention yesterday of the favorites when it comes to the field hockey event at the 2016 Rio Olympics. The men's side will see a number of those teams return to compete for the gold medal in Rio, but one team is absent on both the men's and women's side after being one of the best for a long time. Pakistan's absence at the Rio Olympics is due to a number of circumstances, but this once-proud nation in the field hockey event has fallen from grace.

There are three ways to qualify for the Olympic event:
  1. Win your continental championship tournament - 4 spots available*.
  2. Qualify through the FIH World League - 7 spots.
  3. Host the tournament - 1 spot as long as the country's world ranking is equal or better than 30th or they finish no less than than 6th-place in their respective continental qualification tournament.
The asterisk on criterion #1 is because South Africa had qualified in the African continental tournament, but the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (SASCOC) and South African Hockey Association (SAHA) agreed that the African continental tournament will not be considered due to the lack of competition featured at the tournament. Therefore, all African nations must qualify via the FIH World League for both the men and women. As it stands, no African nations will take part in the field hockey events at the Rio Olympics.

However, that's not the omission that we're talking about today.

Pakistan fell to India in the final of the Asian continental tournament, so they failed to qualify as one of the continental representatives. India, who has long been a powerhouse, used to have a deep and rich history of games against Pakistan, but that has fallen to the wayside in the last decade as Pakistan's team has been underfunded and interest in other sports has grown. These changes in Pakistan have begun to erode the team's success in tournaments and against their biggest rivals.

With criterion #1 no longer achievable, they needed to win a World League tournament or hope that Brazil's team would fail to qualify for their own Olympic Games. The Brazilian men's team finished fourth at the Pan-American Games, so they qualified to host the Olympic Games in their country. The Brazilian women didn't even qualify for the Pan-American Games, so there was a glimmer of hope restored for Pakistan's women's team.

We'll slam the brakes on that glimmer of hope, though. Reuters reported on July 15 that, "most young girls in the deeply conservative Muslim nation are pressured by their families to stop exercising in public, while those with family backing face the wrath of their communities. Because of this, the Pakistani women's team took major blows to its team throughout the last twenty years. As it stands now, the Pakistani women's team is just re-organizing itself despite the setbacks they have faced. Because of these setbacks, though, they did not qualify for the Rio Olympics.

Once again, though, that's not the omission that is surprising.

The Pakistani men's team, known more commonly as the "green shirts", had won eight Asian Games gold medals with the most recent coming in 2010. They are the only country to win the prestigious Champions Trophy with the most recent win coming in 1994. They also have three Olympic gold medals with the last one being awarded in Los Angeles in 1984. See the trend?

As the tournaments include more and more upper echelon teams, the Pakistani team hasn't had the same success. Reuters has reported that the men's team has been forced to practice "[i]n dilapidated gyms and crumbling sports fields" with "dated equipment and obsolete training methods" which have put them behind the top teams on the planet. There is almost no grassroots system to bolster the future of both the men's and women's team in Pakistan, and the cash-poor federations can't hire up-and-coming field hockey coaches to change the practices being used.

In other words, this isn't going to get any better without the infusion of both cash and some grassroots growth in the game. And there's nothing on the horizon to suggest that the 10th-overall team in the FIH rankings will move the rankings either.

When it comes to growing the game, kids are simply looking elsewhere where the money is more prominent. Reuters reports "many young athletes no longer see a future in sports like hockey where top players get $10 per day. Pakistani cricketers, by contrast, are paid $5,000 monthly retainers and make a fortune from sponsorship deals." With the shift to the more lucrative sports, the once-proud Pakistan team has fallen on hard times when it comes to recruiting anyone.

Despite falling to the powerful Indian team at the Asian Games, the Pakistani team still needed to qualify via a FIH World League tournament if they hoped to get to Rio. We already know that this team was challenged when it came to attracting new stars, but there was hope they could pull off another miracle just as they had when they finished second at the Hero Hockey Champions Trophy tournament in Bhubaneswar at the end of 2014.

Pakistan traveled to Antwerp for the FIH Hockey World League semi-finals, but they finished a disappointing eighth-place in the competition. The dream of going to Rio to compete for another Olympic gold medal ended with this tournament, and it appears that the Pakistan national team may not recover.

The squad that went to Antwerp featured five players who have appeared over 100 times for Pakistan nationally including Mohammad Imran and Mohammad Waqas who have some 250 appearances between them. This is an aging team, and they aren't getting the reinforcements to replace the elder statesmen on the team. This situation will almost guarantee that the Pakistan team will continue to fall in the world rankings or, at worst, disband altogether.

It's a very notable omission from a tournament that was once dominated by the Pakistani team, and it's going to take some money and hard work to rebuild this program. If Rio isn't the catalyst for that rebuild, we may never hear about Pakistan at any Olympic field hockey event in the future.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the field!

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