It looked like Pakistan hockey was finally beginning to improve at the Asian Games three months ago under coach Roelant Oltmans but it was soon back on familiar territory.
The Dutchman quit soon after, Muhammed Saqlain left the staff midway through the Asian Champions Trophy and the team was struggling to mop up funds for the World Cup. Not surprisingly, the players felt relieved when they finally landed in Bhubaneswar late on Saturday evening.
“Yes there was a lot of mental pressure in the run-up. But we had good support from our federation. Despite all the issues, we were told only to focus on our game and not bother about other things. That is easier said than done of course and the fact that we reached the final of Asian Champions Trophy was only because the boys were mentally strong enough to come back into the game. As of now, we are only focused on our matches ahead,” goalkeeper and one of the senior players in the side, Imran Butt, told Sportstar .
Being a key player and one of the seven from the last batch that toured here, Butt will be keen to replicate the Champions Trophy 2014 semifinal success when Pakistan upset calculations to beat India.
But he is also aware that hockey has changed in the intervening years. The world order has been rattled by Rio Olympics and Pakistan itself is returning to the World Cup after eight years, the last outing being in 2010, again incidentally in India. More importantly, the last time Pakistan played at the Kalinga Stadium saw the team provoking the crowd with gestures which led to friction between the two federations that continues to simmer.
“I still don’t agree to whatever happened, it shouldn’t have. Aggression on field during game is fine but what happened in 2014 was not right. It also affected us in the final because till then the crowd had been supporting us in non-India games but the final was like home support for Germany. All I wish for is that there should not be anything like that ever again and all the intensity of players should only be restricted to the game on field,” he admitted.
From Lahore to Wagah via road and then transits through Amritsar and Delhi airports, the Pakistan team has travelled quite a distance to reach the World Cup venue.
Butt understands that this might well be his last chance to fulfill a dream.
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