From Ipoh ‘success’ to Gniezno failure

June 23, 2024

The PHF and the government made much of reaching final at Azlan Shah Cup, but the team flopped at ations Cup, exposing again the weaknesses

From Ipoh ‘success’ to Gniezno failure

At the Sultan Azlan Shah Hockey Cup in May, Pakistan finished second. This ‘success’ was blown out of proportion by the PHF and its cronies. ‘Look! Pakistan finished second in this tournament after 13 years. The good old days are back and the golden era will return.’

The PM, the CM of the biggest province and the COAS hosted the team and lavished them with cash prizes.

The Sultan Azlan Shah Cup is a non-title invitational hockey tournament. Malaysia has been hosting this event since 1983. The 2024 edition in Ipoh, the capital city of Perak state, was the 30th.

Till 2019, the participating teams included only 3 or 4 countries ranked among the top nine of the world, apart from the lower-ranked sides. Hence, it was regarded as a second-tier tournament.

In 2019, the FIH (International Hockey Federation) started the FIH Pro League, its new flagship event, with the top nine teams competing. The Pro League replaced the old Champions Trophy where six leading national teams played at a single venue for less than 10 days.

In the Pro League, the nine teams played each other twice at home and away in the first three editions. From 2022-23, the FIH changed the format: no home and away matches.

To reduce financial and logistical issues, a set of three teams gathered at one venue and a "mini tournament" was contested where each team played two matches against one another.

All the teams meet each other twice and every side plays 16 matches. The FIH Pro League runs for months. The Pro League 2023-24 started on 6th December 2023 and will conclude on 30th June 2024.

The Pro League has ramifications for the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup. Since 2019, there have been two editions, in 2022 and 2024. All the top nine teams were absent. Hence, the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup is now further devalued.

Consequently, the lesser-ranked sides have thrived. In 2022, Malaysia won the SAS Cup for the first time – in their 29th attempt. The year 2024 also saw a new champion in Japan. Pakistan too benefited, reaching the final after 13 years.

Invitational and non-title tournaments like the SAS Cup are utilised as preparation for major events. Inexperienced players are assessed. New Zealand were without six first-choice players at the SAS Cup who were plying their trade in the European leagues.

From 2022-23, the bottom team (finishing 9th) at the FIH Pro League is relegated and is replaced by the winners of the FIH Nations Cup, a new competition for the teams ranked outside the top nine.

This year, the Nations Cup was scheduled just 20 days after the conclusion of the SAS Cup. Pakistan’s Dutch coach Roelant Oltmans remarked on the eve of the SAS CUP, "This tournament will provide Pakistan good preparation for the Nations Cup, and winning the Nations Cup is the aim.”

After the promising show at the SAS Cup, Pakistan went to the Polish city of Gniezno for the Nations Cup with great expectations.

They started well. Against Malaysia, Pakistan trailed 1-4. As they had shown so many times at the SAS Cup, Pakistan recovered magnificently to draw 4-4. Canada were trounced 8-1.

The PHF’s cronies managed to stage a ridiculous drama. The minister for Inter-Provincial Coordination Rana Sanaullah congratulated the players on the "great achievement" in a much-televised video link conference. Remember, Canada is ranked 21st; the lowest-ranked team at the Nations Cup other than Poland, appearing only because of being the host.

From Ipoh ‘success’ to Gniezno failure

What happened next? Pakistan were defeated in all three matches and finished fourth. Pakistan have failed to qualify for the last three Olympics and had last appeared at the World Cup in 2018. The Nations Cup was an ideal opportunity for Pakistan to qualify for the Pro League and become a part of international hockey’s mainstream.

That said, the players have the potential to take Pakistan to the higher echelons of international hockey. Their display was highly encouraging at the SAS Cup. The margin was narrow in all three defeats at the Nations Cup.

Then what is the root cause of Pakistan hockey’s woes? The inept people at the top: PHF’s President and the Secretary. The incumbent president Tariq Massori Bugti assumed office in December 2023. He was initially appointed as an ad-hoc president. In his first press briefing, Bugti said, “The prime task assigned to me is to conduct club scrutiny throughout the country followed by free and fair elections.”

He also vowed to set financial matters right. “PHF is facing a deficit of Rs80 million even though the federation has been getting grants all this time. There are reports of misappropriation of funds against the former office bearers of the PHF and investigations are underway.

Those responsible for such blatant corruption should be brought to trial and punished.”

A few days later, Bugti declared that he had sent a letter to the IPC Ministry recommending to put the names of all PHF secretaries and presidents, who worked from 2008 to 2022, on the ECL.

However, a few weeks later there was a strange turn of events. The ad-hoc president of PHF became the elected president through the PHF Congress vote. Soon, Bugti dropped another bombshell. He decided to work with Rana Mujahid as the secretary general of PHF. Yes, the same Rana Mujahid whose name had been recommended by him to be put on the ECL.

The duo has been making merry. They were there at the SAS Cup and the Nations Cup without any invitation from the hosts or the FIH/AHF. The national federation’s top officials are sometimes invited by the FIH/continental federations to international tournaments. This is when official meetings are scheduled on the sidelines which was not the case at the SAS Cup or the Nations Cup. In Ipoh and Gniezno, Bugti and Rana sat in the stands cutting forlorn figures. Apart from enjoying the holiday trip the duo would also get an allowance for the time spent in Malaysia and Poland from the PHF’s coffers, reportedly more than $300 per day.

Administrative bungling was very much visible. Pakistan team’s contract with the previous sponsor whose logo was displayed on the players’ shirts only covered the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup. The PHF failed to get the new uniforms in time. Pakistan team played the opening match of the Nations Cup in the old kit with the sponsor’s name hidden with tapes.

Tailpiece: The revival of Pakistan Hockey requires competent, dedicated and honest people at the top two slots of the PHF.

From Ipoh ‘success’ to Gniezno failure