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Muhammad Usman (left) and Muhammad Saqlain (Muscat Daily)

The recent news of four-time champions Pakistan securing its spot in the 2018 men’s hockey World Cup in India has brought about smiles across the Pakistan hockey fraternity.

The former powerhouse, which had failed to qualify for the 2014 World Cup, had finished seventh in the Hockey World League Semifinals in London, UK, earlier this year, meaning it had missed out on a direct World Cup spot.

Ranked 14th in the FIH rankings, Pakistan, however, found results at the recently-concluded EuroHockey Championship go its way as it became the 13th team to seal its spot in the World Cup after the four semifinalists at the event had already made it to the World Cup.

Pakistan was the highest HWL Semifinals finisher that had not qualified ahead of the EuroHockey. It now joins hosts India, Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Canada, England, Germany, Ireland, Malaysia, Netherlands, Spain and New Zealand at the World Cup.

“It is great news and the start of our hockey revival,” said Muhammad Usman, a member of the 1994-World Cup winning Pakistan team in Sydney, Australia.

Usman, who represented his country in Olympics and World Cup, is currently in Muscat as the coach of the Pakistan Development Squad (PDS).

Usman along with another Pakistan Olympian, Muhammad Saqlain, who is also a PDS coach,  spoke to Muscat Daily on Pakistan hockey.

In fact, the Sydney triumph was the last of the four World Cup titles that Pakistan had won and Usman clearly remembers the final when his team edged past the Netherlands 4-3 in a penalty shootout after both teams were locked 1-1 at the end of regulation time.

“Our goalkeeper Mansoor Ahmed made a fantastic stop to deny Dutchman Jeroen Delmee and help us clinch the World Cup for a record fourth time on December 4, 1994,” said Usman.

“We are very happy [on World Cup qualification] that Pakistan hockey is back on track and we hope that it could make its presence felt at next year’s World Cup,” said Usman.

Saqlain said that the key to team’s improvement would be the players’ fitness level as modern hockey demands speed, skill and stamina.

“Fitness levels have to be extraordinary in today’s hockey. Changing our natural style is not going to help us but we need to adopt the defensive strategy of Europeans as Asian hockey is strong in attacks,” said Saqlain, who was a member of silver-winning Champions

Trophy team in 1998 and also won Commonwealth Games silver medal in 2006.

Both Saqlain and Usman hoped that Pakistan could improve its rankings and be among the top six nations by next year.

“That is a realistic target for our national team, which has suffered due to non-participation at top-level events over the past couple of years. Right now we are ranked 14th in the world. We hope that our team can make it to top-six by next year’s World Cup. If it does, it would be a perfect comeback,” the former Olympians said.

At the 2010 World Cup, when Pakistan last took part, it finished at the bottom among the 12 teams. For a team that has an envious record in the competition, having claimed the title on four occasions, more than any other nation, the welcome return to World Cup action has raised hopes and its revival will be a journey keenly watched by hockey-lovers across the globe.

Courtesy: muscat daily