The love for hockey keeping Uganda's Avtar Bhurji's life on the edge

Avtar Singh Bhurji (left) in a tackle with Islahuddin of Pakistan during the 1972 Munich Olympics. Avtar Bhurji/Facebook

Avtar Bhurji is one of the most familiar faces in the press box at global hockey events. Bhurji, who turns 74 on the day of the semi-finals of the World Cup in Bhubaneswar, represented Uganda at their only outing at the Olympics in Munich in 1972. His tales of the experience encompass sport, tragedy and the drama that arose from returning to a country in the throes of political turmoil under Idi Amin's tenure, the president of Uganda from 1971 to 1979.

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"It was our first Olympics, and we were fearless. We had 6-7 boys from one school [Kololo High School, Kampala] and when you go in without fear, there's no question of having negative or positive thoughts," says Bhurji, who was born in Bika village, Jalandhar, but moved as an infant to Uganda with his father, who had a prosperous construction business.


Bhurji, a qualified civil engineer, was made a permanent left-half of the Ugandan team after impressing coach Randhir Singh Gentle, himself a three-time gold medallist with India between 1948 and 1956, by marking India's right-winger MP Ganesh in a practice match ahead of the Games. "I used to follow him [Ganesh] all the way up to the Indian quarter, because he would take the ball from behind us and advance, and though they managed to beat us 1-0, it was great preparation for us."

After losing their first three games and drawing the fourth, Uganda played hosts West Germany at the main hockey field of the Olympic Park on September 1, with reigning champions Pakistan facing Argentina in the second ground next to it. "Almost all the hockey crowd was [watching Pakistan]. When they got to know that we were leading at half-time, most of the crowd left that ground and came to [watch] us," reminisces Bhurji. "There was no room left for the spectators. That was the best game I had as well, and virtually the last hit of the game gave them [West Germany] a 1-1 draw."

The Germans would recover from the shock of nearly losing to the unknown African opposition to go to win the first hockey gold since 1924 that went to neither India nor Pakistan, while Uganda would never play at the top level again until an Africa Nations Cup appearance in Bulawayo in 2000.

Back in '72, by the time Bhurji and his teammates were returning home, Amin's soldiers had begun acting on the orders of confiscation of properties held by Asians and expelling them from the country. Bhurji sent his kit and clothes with friends flying out to London, and once he went back to Kampala, his father decided to move to Nairobi, building his business again from scratch.


It was on the night Uganda finished their group matches, September 4, that the tragic events of the 'Munich Massacre' unfolded.

"Security inside the village was very relaxed, and we used to get our friends in from the city all the time," he says. "Some of us had gone to town that night, and when we returned, we realised there was some issue, but we didn't initially realise how serious it was."

"They had cordoned off the apartment [where the attack had taken place] and we were insulated from it, so that we wouldn't get injured," he says, pointing across the length of a hockey pitch to show how close the Ugandan athletes were staying. "There was no access to the dining areas, and the recreational facilities. The next day, once the operation was over, they organised a memorial day, and then it was decided to continue with the Games, because otherwise it was felt that the terrorists would have thought they had won."

This was not the only time Bhurji had a close encounter with guns and terror. In 1996, he was training a Kenyan team's defence at the behest of a friend for the All-Africa Games in Nairobi. At the end of a session with the team, Bhurji and some friends were sitting in a clubhouse when six gunmen, robbing them of their watches, wallets, and personal items, assailed them. A gunshot went through his calf, requiring treatment in London.


Bhurji retired from hockey in 1991, after he slipped into a coma that lasted nearly a fortnight. When he recovered, it was diagnosed as a blockage of his portal vein, a rare condition that affects the oesophagus and the intestinal tract. It may have ended his playing career, but his passion would make him turn him to coaching. And he has a unique method to it.

He's accredited as a photographer, and he sees the hockey pitch like few others.

"I use my photographs for coaching purposes as well. It's very easy to explain what is positioning, where is the ball, what is marking, etc." he says. "I sometimes focus on defenders and what their positioning is. Most of the guys tend to back-mark inside the D. You have to tell these players that you have to believe in yourself enough to do front-marking, because if you are behind the attacker, he can just go forward and deflect the ball in, what will you do? All these things -- how to play narrow, how to not leave gaps in the middle, what we call the red zone, and how to protect it -- it is easy to explain in photographs."

However, Bhurji is not one of those veterans who believes there is no era of the sport as good as theirs. "If [former India captain] Ajitpal Singh was to play today -- no disrespect to him -- but he wouldn't have survived. He was a master centre-half, but he used to play at a tortoise's pace.

"It is very difficult to compare players. Today's game is very different."

Coaching has evolved too he says. "What coaching used to be was to abuse and yell and insult players. Those days are gone. I tell them that if you have to progress, then this is what you have to do. They do it, and then you show them three options -- you have to make the decisions on the pitch. It's about educating the players now."

Bhurji, who has coached extensively in London for two decades now, loves travelling to hockey events, meeting old friends and foes on the hockey pitch. Uganda, however have slipped so far behind in competition that they didn't even feature in the African leg of the Hockey Series Open in Zimbabwe earlier this month. They could do with some of the tenacity of one of their former greats.