Pakistan hockey faces crucial challenges

A World XI comprising stars from hockey’s top nations today will be playing two high-profile matches against Pakistan in Karachi and Lahore on January 19 and 21, respectively.

The man behind the idea and the execution is Badar Refaie. He says: “The World XI tour is a prelude to bigger things.”

Badar played first class cricket from 1976-80. He moved to the US and stayed there to study and work. Bobby, as he is commonly called, played cricket for the US for 12 years.

Badar was PCB’s marketing director from 2012 to 2015 and worked as the Executive Director of the PSL.

– What made you interested in hockey?

“In my time, all the cricketers played hockey and vice versa. I played hockey for my school team and also for a top club of Karachi.

“Even after moving to the US, my love for hockey remained intact. I was fortunate to witness that memorable final of 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles when Pakistan defeated Germany to win their last Olympic gold medal. Hence, the decline of Pakistan hockey is very depressing for me. I always desired to contribute in some way to revive our national game.”

– Was it the success of the cricketing venture that encouraged you to try to do the same for hockey?

“As you know, I was very much involved with the launch of PSL. The success of the league convinced me that a similar undertaking in Pakistan hockey is very much possible all the odds notwithstanding. After leaving the PCB, I had returned to the US; only the hockey dream made me come back.

“In 2016, I presented the idea of the Pakistan Hockey League to the PHF. In the meantime, I got Transmedia interested in this venture. PHF launched the tender and Transmedia were the successful party. We wanted to have the first edition of the PHL in Pakistan during October and November of 2016. The foreign players had been contacted and the matters with the franchises were near completion. But the non-issuance of the NOC from the government blocked the event. Only recently did the government give the go ahead.”

– Bobby, the project director of the tour, is confident that the World XI visit would play a vital role in arousing people’s interest in hockey before the all-important PHL.

“That is the main purpose behind this short tour. It should serve as an appetiser for the PHL, and also help present Pakistan as a safe country for hockey. We have been able to rope in stars from almost all the top hockey nations of the day. The World XI has players, among others, from the Olympic Champions Argentina, World Champions Australia, European Champions Netherlands and Germany, who are ranked fifth in the world. It is a wonderful blend. Argentines are young members of their current national team. Australian Grant Schubert has gold medals from all the big events: Olympics, World Cup and Commonwealth Games. Three Dutch players have Olympic as well as European Championship medals. A fourth, the 19-year-old Turkstra, played in the 2016 Olympics. Likewise, two Spaniards have Olympic silver and European gold in their trophy cabinet. Phil Burrows is New Zealand’s all-time top field goal scorer. Two star players from China will add Asian flavor.”

– How did you manage to assemble such a galaxy?

“Despite the country’s unimpressive show for a long time, Pakistan and the sport of hockey are inextricably linked. Pakistan’s record of four World Cup victories is still unequalled. Then the charm of playing in the world’s biggest hockey stadium (in Lahore) is also an attraction. “Unfortunately, hockey’s diminished popularity means public is not much aware of the present day stars of the game. Hence, we arrived with the idea of the “Hall of Fame” event on the sidelines of this tour. During the first match in Karachi, five foreign legends will be honoured along with a similar number of Pakistani greats of the past. Among the foreigners, the names of Paul Litjens and Floris Jan Bovelander are still fresh in the minds of people from my generation. Many remember Bovelander as the man whose two penalty corner goals in the final of the 1990 World Cup in Lahore against Pakistan were instrumental in the home country’s 1-3 defeat. Litjens held the world record for the most international goals (268) from 1982-2004 before our own Sohail Abbas came to own it.

“Sohail, still active on the domestic front, will be a part of the World XI. Spanish Juan Escarre is another one with fond memories of Lahore. However, another legend doesn’t have very good memories of Lahore. German Chris Blunck was one of the players who flunked during the shootout of the 1994 Champions Trophy final against Pakistan; our last victory at the Champions Trophy. Nevertheless, he has an immortal status in the game’s history — ‘Player of Tournament’ at the 1992 Olympics when Germany won the Olympic gold after 20 years. We also hope to have Australian Ric Charlesworth: World Cup winning captain, coach of two men’s World Cup winning squads, coach of two women’s World Cup and two Olympic winning squads. But it is subject to his diary.”

– There will be additional attractions, especially for the youth, we hope?

“To lure people, especially the youth, music concerts featuring the most popular bands will be held before both the matches.”

– Tell us about Transmedia.

“I knew Rao Umar Hashim, Group Director TransGroup from my days with the PCB. Transmedia are the pioneers of sports marketing in this country. Apart from the PSL, for which they currently hold the marketing rights, the group has also been involved with the IPL and BBL. Besides cricket, they have had stints with other sports. In hockey, it was the last Champions Trophy in Pakistan, in 2004. But today, it is different. In spite of the fact that the World XI tour will be a commercial loss, the group has come forward to support the national game. The only motive is to bring back people who had left hockey grounds.”

It will be after a very long time that the hockey lovers in Pakistan would be able to watch such an exciting ensemble of stalwarts in action. The tour should also serve as the catalyst for the PHL which in turn could lead to the revival of country’s long lost hockey glory.

Ijaz Chaudhry (Media Manager – PHF)