President PHF's Press Conference in Islamabad
File Photo

Pakistan hockey continues to suffer setbacks but ask Brig Khalid Sajjad Khokhar, the Pakistan Hockey Federation President, and he will tell you that things are getting back on the right track. In an interview with ‘The News on Sunday’, Khokhar spoke on a variety of issues. Following are some excerpts.

The News on Sunday: You have been at the helm of Pakistan hockey for two and a half years. The national team’s performance has not been satisfactory during this period.

Khalid Sajjad Khokhar: It is good that you started with this question. Where were we at that point of time? Pakistan had failed to qualify for the World Cup (2014). The humiliation was complete as they also failed to make it to the Olympics 2016.

The foremost priority was to bring Pakistan back into the mainstream of international hockey; that is, to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. Though the national team’s overall performance at the Hockey World League was not good, Pakistan did manage to qualify for the World Cup.

Another big achievement in this regard is Pakistan’s selection among the nine countries for the FIH’s high-profile Hockey Pro League which will commence from 2019. That was made possible mainly through diplomatic efforts. The HPL is designed to bring hockey among world’s elitist sports.

Having said that, I agree that overall performance is unsatisfactory and a lot needs to be done. Our own coaches, most of them FIH Certified, have been tried. Now we plan to hire a foreign coach.

TNS: For a very long time now, we have been hearing about the Pakistan Hockey League. What progress has been achieved?

KSK: In this regard, the federation can’t be blamed. PHF’s current regime, right from its early days, has been working on a professional league featuring foreign players. The federation had done all the home work but couldn’t get the NOC from the government. We only recently succeeded when the government gave the green signal. Hopefully, the first edition of the PHL will be staged in April. The negotiations with the foreign players as well as the potential sponsors are in progress. A number of modern-day international stars are expected to figure. There will be financial rewards for players and improvement in players’ skills. Look what PSL has done for Pakistan cricket.

TNS: There is also a talk of an International XI visiting Pakistan. When is it coming?

KSK: It is almost finalised. This will be a star-studded side with players from almost all the leading hockey nations. Arrangements for matches in Karachi and Lahore in the second half of January have already begun. We might get them to play in Islamabad and Peshawar as well. On the sidelines, a Hall of Fame ceremony will also be held in which legends such as Ric Charlesworth, Floris Bovelander, Christian Blunck, along with former Pakistani stalwarts, will be honoured. This tour will pave the way for the PHL.

TNS: Pakistan will be competing in three important title tournaments in 2018: Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and the World Cup. What are the plans for preparing the national side?

KSK: The PHL will immensely help. With the local players rubbing shoulders with the world’s best day in and day out, they are bound to improve. PHF intends to organise a four-nation tournament before the PHL to give our players an opportunity to play international matches. If we are successful, more international teams will be invited.

PHF in collaboration with Hockey Australia also arranged special coaching sessions for Pakistani players under renowned trainers. Plans are afoot to enter this team next year in Australia’s National Under-21 Championships

TNS: It is often said that the pool of talented players is shrinking. What are you doing about it?

KSK: In the past, the domestic club scene was vibrant. The clubs produced quality players. After a lapse of 10 years, the national club hockey got underway, in no less than 144 out of total 149 districts of the country. A massive exercise: beginning from the district round, it progressed to divisional/regional and then the provincial rounds. At several places, people turned up in thousands to witness the matches. PHF intends to make it a part of the PHF’s annual calendar.

It is essential to groom the players on modern lines from an early age. In what was the first of its kind, the Pakistan under-18 squad participated in the highly competitive Australian under-18 national championships in May 2017. Our colts won the title. Remember, Australia are the reigning World Champions.

Moreover, all the 21 players stayed back as they were engaged by Australian clubs to appear in the states’ club championships for a period of around three months.

PHF in collaboration with Hockey Australia also arranged special coaching sessions for Pakistani players under renowned trainers. Plans are afoot to enter this team next year in Australia’s National Under-21 Championships.

Recently, national under-16 schools boys hockey was held in Khairpur in which 14 provincial teams participated. Strict Age scrutiny was carried out. All this should help in creating a large pool of young talented players.

It is PHF’s endeavour to spread hockey activities across the country. Therefore, we held the under-16 event in Khairpur. It was the first time a national event was staged in the town. Likewise, Sukkur is hosting the National Championships for the first time.

TNS: What measures have you taken to get players employed?

KSK: This is a serious issue. In the past, hockey attracted the youth as it offered job opportunities. So many departments, banks had their hockey teams. Over the years, many departments closed their hockey teams. PHF has approached the government to ask the departments to reestablish their hockey teams. At the same time, through my personal efforts, ZTBL, Fauji Fertilizer Company and OGDCL have raised hockey teams. Many present members of Pakistan’s national senior and the age group teams now have jobs. It gives me a sense of achievement that FFC and ZTBL are making their maiden appearance at the National Championships in Sukkur. My own department, Pakistan Mineral Development Corporation, is planning to have a hockey team and an academy. Likewise, POF Wah has agreed to establish a team and an academy.

TNS: The private sector plays a major role in sports’ sponsorship. What have you done to attract its attention?

KSK: Because of the continuous decline in the fortunes of the national team and absence of international hockey at home, interest of the private sector has decreased. PHF largely depends upon the government support. Still, through effective marketing, the federation has managed to generate around Rs50 million from private sponsors. The successful launch of the PHL and return of international hockey would definitely increase private sector’s interest.

Ijaz Chaudhry (Media Manager – PHF)