Monday, July 28, 2014

Pakistanisch hockey: eine Komödie, ohne gleich

A mild interlude.... 

Unlike many hockey fans in India, I am not in favor of an India-Pakistan hockey revival except as a prop to lift India up if (and god forbid that happenstance) India is doing far badly than Pakistan in hockey. Thankfully, those days seem to be far behind and even as I speak, I hope not to Manjrekar them. Nor for that matter am I a big fan of India-Pakistan bilateral cricket matches, despite the huge economic stimuli such matches can be for/in India. Nevertheless, I like to observe Pakistani hockey, its decline, its players and their socio-economic-cultural moorings, the flair for exquisite showmanship beyond the normal in some of them, and the state-of-affairs in terms of administration to see any signs/hope of common-sense -- a commodity that is often lacking in Indian hockey administration.

One such observation forced me to write this piece. The Pakistani hockey team is missing from the ongoing Commonwealth Games and therein lies the sad comedy of errors that is Pakistan hockey administration. 

Every major event such as the Olympic Games, Asian Games, Commonwealth Games, etc. has a deadline for each participating National Olympic Committee (NOC) to enter its final list of athletes that are eligible to compete at that event (having crossed a certain pre-set performance threshold, having met the drug-free compliance policy, etc. being the usual criteria). In the case of the Commonwealth Games, that deadline for all sporting events was set for June 11, 2014 (see Footnote 1) even though different sporting events had different/specific deadlines. In the case of hockey, this deadline was August 16, 2013 (significantly ahead of the Commonwealth Games, but understandable on account of organizational issues). 

Pakistan Hockey Federation (PHF) refused to send an entry (a list of players) by the August 16 deadline because it refused to recognize the authority of the Pakistan Olympic Association (POA), which had re-elected Syed Arif Hasan for a third-term Presidency in Feb. 2012. For the record, Syed Arif Hasan (Linky) is an ex-Pakistan Army guy. The International Olympic Committee (think of such notable examples as Juan Antonio Samaranch or even the famous one -- Pierre de Coubertin from Linky, or individual sports federation Presidents such as Leandro Negre, Sepp Blatter, etc.) does not forbid the re-election of the President for as long as he/she pleases (some tenures last decades) and as long as he/she is re-elected by a simple majority of the eligible voters in the POA elections which is usually overseen by a retired Judge and a government observer for purposes of neutrality (as is the case in India). However, the Pakistan government run Pakistan Sports Board (PSB) objected to the re-election citing its national policy of a two tenure, thus bringing it in direct conflict with the POA (Linky1Linky2). 

A rival group (also, primarily led by Army men) in the POA went ahead and formed a splinter organization. Somehow this group obtained some traction from the Ministry of Inter-Provincial Coordination and the Federal government as also with the PSB, thus putting the continued recognition of POA in ambiguity (Linky1Linky2). Leading the charge on the POA was an Army guy named Muhammad Akram Sahi, who happens to be the younger brother of Muhammad Afzal Sahi (Linky), a leading PML(N) politician and a close confidante of Nawaz Sharif. With Sharif's re-election in early 2013, the POA's recognitional ambiguity became one of revoked authority, much to the chagrin of the IOC. 

Given this background, back to PHF. PHF was/and is still led by Qasim Zia (a former Olympian to his credit) as well as a PPP politician (Linky) that was ruling Pakistan till the re-election of Nawaz Sharif. The National Sports Policy (NSP) of "two-tenures and no more" was brought in by the PML(Q) government in 2005 (Linky) and also seen in a favorable light by the PPP government (with which PML(Q) formed a coalition) as a means to pull the rug from underneath the feat of PML(N) backed politicians, army-men, administrators, businessmen and bureaucrats (the same complex ensemble that also thrives in India with the only major difference being replacing army-men with judges) that had dominated National Sports Federations (NSFs). Qasim Zia could not go past his party's diktats and its attempts at neutralizing power-grab attempts by its rival party. Hence, the PHF's reluctance to send in an entry to the Commonwealth Games. The change of tenure to the Nawaz Sharif government initially saw no change in the NSP because of the gains that the Nawaz faction would make by taking over the POA. However, as the crisis continued and the IOC stood steadfast in its attempts at de-recognizing Pakistan from the Olympic movement till the government gave in, and the slow realization of how the PML(N) would be the biggest loser from the insistence on the NSP meant that the Nawaz government slowly backed away and then recognized the Arif Hasan faction in the POA. So, the net result (see Footnote 2) of this tragi-comedic farce is that Pakistan still remains in the Olympic movement and its 62 member team is participating the Commonwealth Games after the Lahore High Court cleared their way. 

But the Pakistan hockey team missed out on its Sept. 16, 2013 extended deadline also and will miss the Commonwealth Games. They might have also not been able to defend the Asian gold at Incheon, but they barely managed to make the deadline for the hockey competition at Incheon and will hence compete there. However, there may be some confusion in the next few days since the official list of players did not include some well-known players. Yawn. 

Now what does this mean? For a team that missed out on the 2014 World Cup by failing to be in the top-3 (and even the top-4 lest some openings fall open following the automatic qualification of other teams -- Pakistan finished 5th behind 4th placed Japan and in any case, no trickle-downs happened to Japan also) at the World league semi-finals (see Footnote 3) at Johor Bahru in June-July 2013 (Linky), to be missing out on the Commonwealth Games, which would have exposed the team to much needed competition (from at least two of India, Newzealand, Australia and England) is sheer chutzpah of the highest order. To lack senses to the point till which the entry to the Asian Games was also threatened is serious ability to inflict crime on the well-being of many (there are many hockey families that depend on the sustenance of the paychecks from PHF, which in itself depends on the well-being of hockey) for the benefaction of a few select elites. Hopefully, for some Indians who are aware of such juvenile attempts at pointing a gun to one's own temple and the Army's stranglehold on almost every affair in the country, this is no news. 

In contrast, even at the height of the HI-IHF imbroglio/impasse, neither organization prevented the Indian team from making it to the 2010 World Cup (which conveniently was hosted in India and would have drawn considerable horror from everyone around even beyond the horrors that were the Kalmadi-run Commonwealth Games of 2010, if the IHF had protested legally). Nothing more than a symbolic protest was done to prevent the 2012-Olympics bound hockey team go to London, by which time the HI-IHF crisis had kind of blown away in favor of the HI. Despite such fortunate occurrences, it is highly improbable that the IHF (or the HI) would have prevented the Indian team from going for a certain event, provided they qualified for it. The contrast with Pakistan is thus complete. 

The absence of Pakistan paved the way for Trinidad & Tobago to make their long way to Glasgow and earn some experience at the hands of considerably superior hockey teams. So far, the essentially unranked women's team has given a fight to the much higher ranked Canadian team. The much lower ranked men's team has given a better fight to the more higher ranked Canadian men's team too. While T&T has got whipped by everyone else, Pakistan's loss is T&T's gain, even they will agree on this despite the pains from the whipping and the long healing time that might take. 

Does this mean that the Asian games are spooked for Pakistan? Time will tell, and hopefully they tell a better story for India. But if lack of matchplay experience is an excuse that has to be peddled following the usual ululation following a disaster in Pakistan, then the PHF will have none else to blame but themselves. And Pakistani hockey fans (if they still exist) have my deepest sympathies despite the considerable anathema I have for an India-Pakistan hockey contest. My extended condolences at missing the World Cup at The Hague. I still cannot forget/forgive Santiago 2008 and a 1008 poxes on the English team for the cheating they did to get to Beijing. And more pox on the Chinese team which took the host spot based on a dubious Doha Asiad outcome. Sadly, for Pakistan fans, there are no ready enemies to point at except the PHF. 

Footnotes: 
1) Several countries missed this June 11 deadline because of varying reasons and the Commonwealth Games Federation still accommodated them at a later date, but not without a fuss (Linky). 
2) The only close analog (I can think off-hand) at spooking oneself happened in the Indian tennis world: Linky
3) The biennial World league semi-finals (which is played in two pools) is the new FIH-adopted method to earn qualifications to the World Cup and Olympic Games, in addition to the five continental automatic qualifiers + the host. The host country needs to cross a certain threshold of qualification, which will be missed by Brazil by the end of 2014 (the deadline for host qualification) thus eliminating them from being a part of the hockey competition for the Rio games of 2016. Thus, seven spots will remain open from the World league semi-finals of 2014-15 for the Rio games. The World league events is a four round event with Rds. 1 and 2 being the feeder for the semi-finals and the semi-finals providing the teams for the final. The consequences of this system are: 1) continued dominance of the European teams at world events (more on this in a later post), 2) elimination of ad-hoc qualification events for entry to the World Cup and Olympic games thus avoiding a Santiago 2008 type "one failure meltdown" for teams like India, 3) possible redundancy in terms of qualifications for these events by being in the top-3 (for sure) or top-4 (with high probability -- there is a luck of the draw as India made it as the 4th ranked team in one of the pools while Japan missed out on the other pool), 4) a single unified and well-understood, well-bid qualification tournament, and 5) continuation of the Champions Trophy as a bling-only event without any big impacts on more ceremonial events such as Olympics or the World Cup. There goes another Pakistani invention. 

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