'In the Spotlight' is a series that will profile each of the 24 participating teams at the London Olympic Games. It will provide a glimpse of what to expect as each squad begins its London quest. Between now and the Olympic opening ceremony a new team will be featured every 2-3 days. Today we feature the men's national team of Pakistan.
Pakistan is currently ranked eighth in the FIH World Ranking. They are one of the most decorated teams in world level competition, boasting eight Olympic medals (including three gold) and six World Cup medals (including four gold). But Pakistan has slid away from the international podiums lately. Their last top-three finish was the 1994 World Cup (gold). Pakistan had a lacklustre performance in Beijing in 2008, finishing eighth. They were last at the 2010 World Cup and ended a disappointing sixth at the Commonwealth Games the same year.
The Road to London:
The Green Shirts regrouped to win the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou, China, grabbing the only automatic Olympic berth for Asia ahead of Malaysia, India and Korea. Pakistan has since been plagued by recurring internal problems and erratic team selection. Several senior players were suspended, leaving an inexperienced team to go to the recent Azlan Shah Cup where they lost to Olympic opponents New Zealand, Korea, India and Great Britain triggering a new shuffle to the line-up.
Players to Watch:
Penalty-corner specialist Sohail Abbas, the top goal-scorer in the history of hockey, was on the team for the Azlan Shah Cup, but at 36, is far from the record-breaking form of his glory days. He will however go to London, as the captain.
Veterans Shakeel Abbasi, Rehan Butt and Mohammad Waseem were also named to the extended 20-man squad for the Olympic Games. All well-known on the international scene, with appearances on the FIH All-Star Team (2008 and 2010 for Butt, and 2006 for Abbasi), their experience could be important for their younger teammates.
A former international player, Khwaja Junaid won a bronze medal at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona (the last time Pakistan appeared on the Olympic podium). Previously in charge of the junior national team, then manager of the senior team, he took over coaching duties in March, replacing Michel van den Heuvel. Another decorated veteran, Akhtar Rasool (World Cup winner in 1971, 1978 and 1982, twice Olympic medalist) is the “Head Coach / Manager”. The first few months of their tenure have been chaotic and they have little time before the Games to turn the team around.
Pakistan has plenty of raw talent among their younger players, but none have so far proven themselves on the international scene, leaving the fate of the team in the hands of the veterans. The good news is if the Junaid and Rasool can get the team in top form, there will be no shortage of talent on the field. Sohail Abbas summed up the situation when he declared “'they say hockey today is all about speed, precision and fitness, but if we play as one and use our skills effectively we can beat any team”.
Challenges behind the scenes have marred Pakistan’s lead up to London 2012, and prevented a coherent preparation for the younger players. Unity and skills are needed, but certainly not sufficient, in today’s top international competitions. Pakistan will need to drown out all the drama and keep its focus on the field.
Chief Selector Hanif Khan (a member of Pakistan's gold medal team at the 1984 Olympics) declared "We have high hopes with the team. If they finish on the podium it would be as good as a gold medal, if they finish between 4-6 it would be worth the hard work". It is however more likely that the problems surrounding the selection and preparation of this team will prevent them from finishing higher than their entry ranking (8th).
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