He is called the 'Maradona' of hockey. Shahbaz Ahmed is one of the legendary players in the history of not only Pakistan but of world hockey. He has ruled the hockey turf with great stickwork and smooth dribbling. Shahbaz came to play for Mohammedan Sporting Club in Dhaka Hockey League in the 1990’s.
Dhaka lived in his memory forever, said the former player in a WhatsApp interview with Prothom Alo. He also talked about why hockey has lost popularity in the subcontinent.
Shahbaz recalled Bangladeshi hockey and Bangladeshi hockey stars of his time. In the midst of cricket boom in the subcontinent, Shahbaz is still proud of his achievements and his hockey career.
The excerpt of his interview is as below:
What made a star hockey player like you to choose Dhaka Hockey League as you played for Mohammedan Sporting Club in 1997?
I knew about Mohammedan as not only one of the best clubs in Bangladesh but also in the entire region. Many Pakistani hockey players played in Bangladesh at that time. I learned about Bangladeshi hockey from them. It’s not that Bangladesh as a team was doing very well but I came to know the league was a tough one. I went to Bangladesh and signed for Mohammedan out of curiosity, I must say. Honestly speaking, I was surprised to see the league as a highly competitive one.
How could I forget those moments? Mohammedan Club officials, supporters and everyone were so friendly. I loved everything about Dhaka and I still miss it. I still miss coconut water of Dhaka. I used to drink plenty of coconut water there
Can you remember the match against Abahani in 1997 league where you played opposite Indian star Dhanraj Pillai?
Of course, I do. It was very exciting one. Kamran Ashraf scored a brace and Mohammedan achieved a hard-fought win against arch rival Abahani. Dhanraj Pillai was an awesome player from India. I can clearly remember, in that match there were India-Pakistan rivalry as well as perianal stigma of Abahani and Mohammedan.
What were your favourite memories in Dhaka? Mohammedan was champion in that league. Tell us about the crowd in the ground.
How could I forget those moments? Mohammedan Club officials, supporters and everyone were so friendly. I loved everything about Dhaka and I still miss it. I still miss coconut water of Dhaka. I used to drink plenty of coconut water there.
This is a tough sport. You have to be very hardworking to become a hockey player. Personal skill is very important here. Without adequate investments, hockey would not be a popular game in the present situation
Why did Pakistan hockey team fall behind?
Hockey is now not as popular among the youth as its was in the past. This is a bitter truth. Although hockey is the national sport of Pakistan, there were no government patronage for the last two decades. Sponsors are not very interested to be a part of hockey. India is bit different in this matter. Situation in India is not as bad as Pakistan. At least, they have sponsors. But youth are not interested in hockey in India as well.
Hockey has the potential to become one of the most popular sports in the world. Yet why it fell behind football, rugby, cricket or even tennis?
It is true that hockey is lagging behind Football, Rugby, Basketball, Cricket or even tennis to some extent. Millions of dollars are invested for those games, which you cannot find in hockey. Professionalism is a far cry in hockey. This is a tough sport. You have to be very hardworking to become a hockey player. Personal skill is very important here. Without adequate investments, hockey would not be a popular game in the present situation.
I learned a lot about hockey by watching and playing football. Particularly I learned playing on Astroturf from football. I played cricket as well to learn to control the hockey stick better
Hockey was popular in Bangladesh. You saw the hype in the 90’s. Why did it fall? What do you think?
If youths are not interested in the game in countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh, nothing will improve. Cricket have grown as a popular form of sport in Bangladesh from the 1990’s. Success of cricket make Bangladeshi youth dream about cricket. Bangladesh is now among the top cricket playing nations. There are lot of money in cricket. As far as I am aware, there are sponsors for football in Bangladesh. I must say hockey organisers cannot avoid responsibilities for its decline.
You became player of the tournament in two consecutive world cups (in 1990 and 1994). Please share some of your experiences regarding that…
In 1990, We couldn’t win the trophy in Lahore stadium with 80,000 spectators. We had to be contented with the second position. But we clinched the world title in Sydney beating the Netherlands in tiebreaker. In both the occasion, I became the man of the World Cup. Those are the proud moments for me. People used to say I showed the world how to play proper hockey. I still become emotional to remember those moments.
How did you enjoy the rivalry with Indian team?
Undoubtedly, we all were very eager to play against India. It used to be a nerve wrecking game as if it were the matter of life and death. Actually, political tension between India and Pakistan makes every sport between the two nations more exciting.
How and why Europe (particularly Germany and The Netherlands) and also Australia have become the centre of hockey?
I have said earlier that youth in India and Pakistan are not interested in hockey. This is the main reason. Germany and the Netherlands are the rich nations and have huge investment in hockey. They can use the technology properly.
Australia, on the other hand, is not only good at hockey but also in various other sports. They can synthesise professionalism, institution and technology very skillfully.
Do you remember your contemporary hockey stars of Bangladesh -- Mahbub Harun, Jummon Lusai, Mohammad Sadek, Rafiqul Islam Kamal?
I can remember a few of them. Jumman Lusai is one of them. I heard about his untimely demise. I remember Mahbub Harun and Mahfuz Nixon. Nixon was the captain of Dhaka Mohammedan in 1997 when I was there. Mohammad Sadek and Rafiqul Islam Kamal were two very promising and talented hockey players. Actually, Bangladeshi hockey players were not lucky enough. They couldn’t flourish in the world hockey. Bangladesh had some very good hockey players in the 90’s. What Bangladesh needed were proper planning and good coaching. Most importantly Bangladesh had a very good club structure.
Do you think popularity of cricket is particularly denting hockey in the subcontinent?
I wouldn’t say so. In the 80’s and 90’s hockey was as popular as cricket in Pakistan and India. I must hold the hockey organisers responsible for its poor condition. Cricket reached among the mass people but hockey hasn’t. You must not blame only cricket for this.
Do you have any regret for not having popularity as the cricket stars like Wasim Akram, Shaoaib Akhter, Waqar Younis and Shahid Afridi in Pakistan?
I achieved a lot in my career. I don’t think about the popularity ever. I played with pride as long as I played for my country. I received a lot of respect and love from the people. Those were enough.
You are called a God-gifted talent in world hockey. How did you manage to get to the height?
You know what, I was equally good in football, cricket and hockey. I only decided to play hockey in the last days of my school. I didn’t have any coach. I learned at my own will and interest. There were very few live telecast matches in television those days. So, I went to hockey field and watch the moves of the players.
I learned a lot about hockey by watching and playing football. Particularly I learned playing on Astroturf from football. I played cricket as well to learn to control the hockey stick better.
* The interview, originally published in Prothom Alo print edition, has been rewritten in English by Farjana Liakat