KARACHI: Pakistan’s previous appearance in a major hockey event — the 2008 Games in Beijing — ended in a big flop as the three-time former champions finished eighth in the quadrennial spectacle, their worst showing in Olympic history.
The Greenshirts could be in for a similar heartbreak in the World Cup getting underway in New Delhi from February 28 but team coach Shahid Ali Khan doesn’t think so. The former Olympian has conceded that his team will begin the prestigious 12-nation contest as one of the underdogs but warned competing teams that Pakistan may well be the dark horse of the tournament which they’ve won on a record four occasions.
“What happened to Pakistan in Beijing is now history,” Shahid told ‘The News’ in an interview on Tuesday. “Our team has since then showed heartening improvement and I’m confident that we will do well in New Delhi,” he stressed.
Pakistan made the cut for the World Cup by winning a qualifying tournament in Lille (France) last November but failed to qualify for the Champions Trophy after falling to New Zealand in the final of the Champions Challenge in Salta (Argentina) in December.
Their loss to the Kiwis in Salta where Pakistan were also beaten by hosts Argentina gave the national team’s critics enough ammunition to write off the Greenshirts’ chances of doing well in the World Cup which is likely to be dominated by teams like defending champions Germany and Australia. But Shahid stressed that critics should think again before writing off his team’s World Cup chances.
“We may be one of the underdogs but I have faith in my boys and am confident that we would prove our critics wrong,” he said. “I’m not saying that we are going to win the World Cup but only that with this team anything is possible.”
Shahid’s confidence springs from his assessment that the team has shown a lot of improvement during an extensive training camp in Lahore. He and fellow team coaches have been working on a few key areas in which the team showed problems in Lille and Salta.
“We have worked really hard on some of the crucial areas like penalty corners, deep defence and tackling pressure especially in the last minutes of a close match,” he said. According to Shahid, his boys have shown marked improvement in deep defence besides doing better in short corner defence as well as offence.
“We have also worked a lot of different kinds of variations in the forward line and the results have been good,” he said. The coaches have been focusing on helping their charges improve their fitness ahead of the World Cup. “Fitness has been on the top of our targets and I must say that there has been enormous improvement in that area as well.”
Shahid said that Pakistan’s hockey fans will see a “much better side” in New Delhi as compared to Salta. “We will certainly raise our level because it will be a different ball game in the World Cup. It is the biggest event in international hockey and we have to be at our best and I’m sure the boys are ready for it.”
Pakistan are hoping that one of their young forwards Omer Bhutta will recover in time from an ankle injury to play in their World Cup opener against old rivals India on February 28.
“Omer has been out of action because of a twisted ankle but we are hoping that he will be fit in time to play in the World Cup,” said Shahid.
Omer, a young winger, will have to pass a fitness test on February 20 to be able to retain his place in the Pakistan team which leave for New Delhi on the 22nd.
If he is unable to so that, Shafqat Rasool is expected to replace him in the touring party. A former Pakistan junior team captain, Shafqat was dropped from the national team because of indifferent form.
Pakistan are in Group B along with Australia, England, India, South Africa and Spain. Holders Germany, Argentina, New Zealand, the Netherlands, South Korea and Canada form Group A.
Squad: Nasir Ahmad and Salman Akbar (goalkeepers), Zeeshan Ashraf (captain), Sohail Abbas and Muhammad Rashid (defenders), Mohammad Irfan, Waseem Ahmad, Mohammad Imran, Fareed Ahmad and Sajjad Anwar (midfielders), Rehan Butt, Shakeel Abbasi, Abdul Haseem Khan, Mohammad Zubair, Akhtar Ali, Omer Bhutta, Abbas Haider and Muhammad Rizwan (forwards).