The Indian hockey team has won the bronze medal at the Olympics, whereas Pakistan couldn’t qualify for the tournament. How did two hockey giants fall from their grace, but only one country managed to get back on its feet while the sport is on a ventilator in the other country?

International hockey in the subcontinent has always revolved around India and Pakistan. India and Pakistan have played against each other several times in field hockey. They participate in Asian Games, Commonwealth Games, Men’s Hockey Asia Cup, Hockey Champions Trophy, Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, and Summer Olympic Games. 

The two hockey heavyweights have a record of confronting each other in the initial seven Asian games hockey finals. They have played an aggregate of nine finals against one another, in which Pakistan has won seven and India has won two gold. The two countries have played each other from 1956 to 1964 out of three successive Olympic hockey finals. India won gold twice, while Pakistan won once. They played in four Asia Cup hockey finals against one another. Pakistan won three out of those. Pakistan has a record of winning the initial three Asia Cup hockey (for example 1982, 1985, and 1989) against India in succession. 

Indian Hockey 1956
Indian Hockey Team At 1956 Rome Olympics

But then came the ’80s, and things took a turn. India, after winning a gold medal in the 1980 Olympic Games, suffered a major decline in terms of its performance. In the subsequent editions of the Olympics, India was not able to secure a top 4 finish, let alone winning a medal. With Indian Cricket Team winning the 1983 World Cup, the popularity of field hockey also dwindled, cricket became the focus of the whole country. India did well in Asia, winning the Asia Cup and Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, but couldn’t make their mark on the world map. Women’s hockey was introduced in the 1980 Olympics, and then India finished fourth. The women’s team then came back in the 2016 Rio Olympics, and ended up finishing last in the group. The biggest setback in Indian hockey was to not qualify for Beijing Olympics 2008. It was the first time in 88 years that India didn’t qualify for the event. 

This was a wake-up call for the Indian Hockey Federation as slowly and steadily, they appointed foreign coaches into the mix, and the senior players had a say in major team decisions. Indian men’s team striker SV Sunil said to Scroll, “It was very different when I came into the senior India Team in 2007. A lot has changed in terms of how the national team is managed now in comparison to 10-12 years ago. There is a lot more professionalism and accountability. This systematic approach has definitely contributed to the team’s improvement over the years. Earlier, we would do what the coach would say without questioning or without reasoning. But this has changed drastically over the years and there is a two-way communication approach where players are equally involved in planning training sessions.” 

Pakistan Hockey 1956
Pakistani Hockey Team At 1956 Rome Olympics

The 31-year-old forward from Karnataka said senior players are now consulted by Hockey India, to ensure everything is on the right track. “I think these aspects have not only made the players as well as support staff more responsible and accountable but it has also largely helped in India’s climb up the world rank to No 4.” And now, in the Tokyo Olympics India has reached the semi-final of the tournament beating Great Britain 3-1 and have reached a ranking of 3. Today, the men’s hockey team registered a thrilling 5-4 win over Germany to clinch the bronze medal, ending their 41 year Olympic medal drought. The Indian women’s team did the unthinkable, beating World No.2 Australia 1-0 in the quarter-finals of the event, and will fight for a bronze medal against Great Britain. All these results indicate the progress that can put India back on its perch. 

The same cannot be said for our neighbours. Pakistan has experienced a stunning and ceaseless decay from being reliably among the main four to grieving at eighteenth in the most recent rankings. The Tokyo Olympics are the second successive time that Pakistan has missed the multi-sport event. It also failed to qualify for the 2014 World Cup for the first time in history, and finished a dismal 12th in the 2018 edition. For a country that has won three Olympic golds and a record four World Cup titles, missing out on back-to-back Olympic Games is nothing less than a catastrophe for the followers. Shakeel Abbasi, the striker of the Pakistani team feels that he made a “big mistake” taking hockey on as a career, he said to Al Jazeera that many options were open to him as a promising athlete. “I made a big mistake by picking hockey over cricket. I was very good at both but I preferred our national sport [hockey]. Sometimes, I feel it was a big mistake. This is happening to a player who has served his country for years, played in three Olympics, two World Cups, and eight Champions Trophy tournaments. I pity the kids when I see them playing hockey.” 

 

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Pakistani hockey supporters also feel that the game is dead in their country. A Pakistani supporter said to Al Jazeera “Pakistan’s national anthem played to honour the gold-winning team at the Olympics remains my best memory. It used to be a matter of huge pride for us. We grew up playing hockey on the streets, but now our kids know nothing about the sport because we are nowhere to be seen in a sport that we ruled for decades.” Some fans and experts have concluded that Pakistan hockey is “dead” while others, showing minor optimism at best, consider it to be “on a ventilator”. Some experts believe the introduction of artificial turf in the 1970s started to affect the performance of Pakistani and Indian players. Both were labelled the “kings of grass”. The game evolved over the years, demanding better fitness but analysts say Pakistan were left behind in the race. It is also said that the Pakistan Hockey Federation officials have been accused of corruption and misusing the funds given to them because of poor planning. 

Both countries faced the same problem — not being able to adapt to the modern game, the fitness level of players not being up to the mark. The rise of cricket and its commercial value also gave the sport a major hit. But India learned their lesson, did the right things, and because of that, they are coming out stronger, as compared to our neighbours.