History weighs heavy on Pakistan, borne lightly by Netherlands

The Netherlands have had far greater success in recent years than Pakistan - although neither have won the world title for over two decades. Soccrates/Getty Images

If World Cups were awarded based on past glory alone, the winner of the 2018 hockey World Cup in Bhubaneswar would likely come from Group D. Between them, Germany (2), Pakistan (4) and Holland (3) have won nine World Cup titles. But none of them have come in the last decade. Of the lot, Germany has won most recently - in 2006. For the Netherlands and Pakistan the wait has been quite a bit longer.

For the Dutch, the fact that they last won a world title two decades ago (18 if you count their gold medal at the 2000 Olympics) doesn't seem to bother them too much. That they have continued to count as one of the powerhouses of world hockey - they have two Olympic and three world cup medals since their last global triumph - suggests they might cross that final hurdle any time.

At least that's what Dutch coach Max Caldas believes. "This doesn't create any pressure. Why would it?" says Caldas brusquely. "This entire pool of death was invented to make it easy to write headlines. Sure, 1998 was a long time ago. But, you don't win tournaments with history. You win tournaments by being good now," he says of his side, ranked 4th in the world.

History weighs far heavier on Pakistan, who won the last of their four titles (the most of any side) in 1994.

Unlike the Dutch, they are a shadow of that previous team, as their current world ranking of 13 -- the fourth lowest among teams in the competition -- would suggest. Their preparations for the World Cup have been far from ideal. Following a dismal medal-less Asian Games campaign, coach Roelant Oltmans, himself appointed just a few months earlier, resigned. The domestic game has stagnated and the country last hosted a FIH tournament 14 years ago.

Pakistan coach Tauqeer Dar knows his side are teetering close to the brink. Dar, who has lived the halcyon days of Pakistan hockey -- he was part of the 1984 Olympic winning side -- will agree with Caldas to a point. He admits that old honours won't mean a thing when his side step onto the field for their opening match against Germany.

"The past results have nothing to do with the match on the day. The one who plays well will win," says Dar. Yet the heritage isn't one that can be discarded either. "This is a past we have inherited," he says.

And so, whenever he can, Dar does his best to remind his players of what they must live up to. "Every day at breakfast, lunch and dinner we remind our players that Pakistan hockey will be revived through you."

Dar hasn't held his current responsibility for very long. However, he genuinely believes that his side can compete above what their ranking and recent form suggests. "My purpose was to motivate these players. They have all the skills. Many of our players are even paid by foreign clubs to play for them. Inshallah if they perform to the best of their skills on the day, they can surprise any team in the world," he says.

Dar insists that instilling belief in his players is crucial. "We can't treat these players like they are students in some school and we are the principal. We have to treat them with respect. The change that I want to bring is to let them understand that they are the assets of Pakistan," he says.

His side is more than just a collection of hockey players. Regardless of the results, they are a thread that links his compatriots to the days when Pakistan was a world power. "They are more than hockey players. It is because of them that the glorious past of our nation stays in our mind."

Having grown up and lived through the good times -- It's perhaps easy for Dar to feel this way, convinced that better days must be around the corner.

It's another thing for his squad to feel the same way. And Dar admits to that. That this is an expectation might seem overbearing to the side, many of whom hadn't even picked up a hockey stick when Pakistan won the last of their World Cups in 1994. "You are right, it does add pressure. But, it is a positive feeling. When at the opening ceremony they announce that Pakistan is the four-time hockey champion, it instills something in our captain. It gives the players something to live up to," he says.

The challenges that await them are steep but in Bhubaneswar, Dar believes his side will at least give testament to their lineage. Their task is clear. "Perform on the field and let everyone know that we still have some hockey left in us. Whatever the difficulties, we still have some hockey left in us," he says.