Hockey 'shoots itself in the foot'

Former national skipper Farooq Saeed is scathing of officials over failure to qualify for the Asian Games

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 April, 2014, 10:33pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 April, 2014, 10:33pm

Former men's hockey captain Farooq Saeed has hit out at Hong Kong's failure to qualify for the Asian Games for the first time in two decades saying the Hong Kong Hockey Association's excuse that stringent player-eligibility rules led to the poor show in the qualifiers in Bangladesh did not stand up to scrutiny.

With the Asian Games governing body, the Olympic Council of Asia, following IOC guidelines of passport-only as a measure for an athlete's eligibility for the first time, Hong Kong was forced to send a side described as "second string" by Sarinder Dillon, the president of the Hong Kong Hockey Association.

They lost all their matches in the eight-team qualifying competition where six berths were available for the Incheon Games in September.

Once the bulk of us retired, there was no one left who could step into our shoes and four years on, the results are plain to see
Farooq Saeed

The men's team had played in every Asian Games since the qualifying process was put in place for the first time for the 1998 Bangkok Games.

"All we needed was to win one game to qualify, but we couldn't even beat Iran, who only started playing hockey in recent years. It hurts badly to see Hong Kong missing out on these Games," said Saeed.

A solid central defender, Saeed, 44, represented Hong Kong for 20 years and played in four Asian Games starting with the 1990 edition in Beijing, 1998, 2002 and 2006.

He retired from international hockey in 2009, but came back to represent Hong Kong at cricket at the last Asian Games in Guangzhou four years ago.

"Hong Kong hockey was once in the top six in Asia, now we cannot even qualify for the Asian Games and all the blame cannot be placed on the players or the eligibility issue," Saeed said.

"The question that must be asked is why we failed to develop the sport over all these years, especially since we won the bronze medal at the 2009 East Asian Games."

The passport-only criteria resulted in almost one-third of the squad for Bangladesh last month being first-timers.

There were seven young debutants in the squad - Andrew Hayward, Tse Man-chun, Chan Ka-chun, Chuen Kwun-wa, Wong Chun-hin, Alexander Kwan Chi-hong and Tsang Kin-kan.

Arif Ali, the youngest of the four Ali brothers, led the squad, with the rest having retired like Saeed from international level.

After losing 6-2 to Taiwan in the final match - Hong Kong's fourth defeat in a row - HKHA president Dillon said: "What can you do? We had to send a second-string side for the qualifiers due to eligibility issues."

Under new eligibility requirements for the Asian Games - following International Olympic Council guidelines - athletes need to hold the passport of the country they represent.

This meant at least eight regular players missing out from going to Bangladesh, among them Hong Kong-born players Kieran Smith and Dev Dillon as well as others like Ishtiaq Ahmed, Muhammed Arshad and Inderpal Singh, who had qualified under the previous three-year eligibility rule.

"The new eligibility requirements jolted us. We had a lot of youngsters who had come through the ranks but, unfortunately, a number of them didn't carry a Hong Kong SAR passport," said Dillon.

"Ishtiaq and Arshad are a deadly attacking combination, and easily the top two 'local' players. We missed them badly."

Saeed scoffed at the idea that the passport-rule had exposed Hong Kong's underbelly.

"If the association knew they were sending a second-string side, and with so much at stake, why didn't they ask if any of the more experienced players who had retired would come back?

"Why didn't they take players like Asghar Ali or Akbar Ali [two of the older brothers of Arif], both of whom still play in the local league, and who have Hong Kong SAR passports.

"This is after all an Asian Games you are talking of. They could have qualified with a few of the older guys and then sent a young and inexperienced team to Korea in September," said Saeed, who captained the team at the 1998 and 2002 Asian Games, and shared captaincy with Akbar Ali in 2006.

Dillon said the association felt it would have been counter-productive to go back to the old hands even with the stakes so high.

"One or two players don't make a difference and anyway it would have been unfair on the youngsters who had been training right along if someone was to come in at the last minute and take their place. That would have crushed the morale of the entire squad," Dillon said.

"But even with this squad, we had confidence we would qualify, but they had one bad game and that cost us. It happens in sport, you play one bad game and you are out of contention."

Hong Kong lost 2-1 to Iran after leading for most of the match. The post-match report submitted by officials to the HKHA said the players failed to follow the game plan and that had cost them against Iran.

In 2009, Hong Kong hockey was on a high when the Akbar Ali-led team captured the bronze medal at the East Asian Games. Saeed is critical that the HKHA failed to jump on the bandwagon and use that landmark moment to promote the sport more aggressively.

"When I was playing alongside the Ali brothers and others like Swalikh Mohammed, Hong Kong enjoyed some of their best results.

"We should have started a development programme then. For instance, winning that bronze medal in front of the home crowd at the East Asian Games was one of the best moments for Hong Kong hockey. We defeated China in that game in extra time, with Swalikh scoring the golden goal.

"We should have used that impetus to push our development programme forward then and started to plan ahead to the future. But sadly, once the bulk of us retired, there was no one left who could step into our shoes and four years on, the results are plain to see, sadly," Saeed said.

The local scene, however, is vibrant and this season was juiced up with the presence of international stars like Pakistan's penalty-corner wizard Sohail Abbas turning out for Punjab in the Premier League.

Here, too, the association had not made the most of this rare opportunity of having an international star in Hong Kong, said Saeed.

"When you have a player like Sohail Abbas in your midst, you must try and maximise that opportunity by organising clinics for youngsters, but the association didn't do anything," Saeed said.