Sports pitch for level playing field in cricket-mad Pakistan
Cricket has totally eclipsed other sports, even the ones Pakistan excelled at
Field hockey, Pakistan’s national sport, too waned in popularity, participation
Updated 06 February 2023
ISLAMABAD: On Islamabad’s outskirts, burly men bind together in a scrum on a rugby pitch that has seen better days. The sign bearing the club’s name is worn. The floodlights are too costly to use, given high electricity prices and the paltry $135 total that the club earns in membership fees every month.
Watching the players, coach Mohammed Zahir Uddin said ruefully: “There’s only one game in Pakistan.”
That would be cricket, the country’s most popular sport, a juggernaut when it comes to sponsorship, broadcasting rights and capturing the public’s imagination.
Cricket has totally eclipsed other sports, even ones Pakistan excelled at. Field hockey, Pakistan’s national sport, once propelled the country to Olympic gold and global glory, but it has waned in popularity and participation. Pakistan dominated the squash world for decades, only to become a shadow of its former self.
Prospects are even bleaker for a sport like rugby, which has no heyday or heroes in Pakistan.
“There’s no support from the bodies that there ought to be in terms of funding, spreading the word,” said Hammad Safdar, who captains Pakistan’s national rugby team. “The majority of sports have the same issue. That’s why, in terms of performance, in the later stages when there’s a test, we lack because there’s no foundation.”
Pakistan hosts the South Asian Games next year, the biggest sporting tournament to be held in the country for 20 years. It won 143 medals the last time it hosted, including 38 gold. But years of neglect of sports could affect its medal tally this time.
Advocates of sports under cricket’s shadow say they don’t have the environment to thrive or take top prizes, with a lack of investment and interest. Even universally loved soccer has its struggles in Pakistan. Infighting and government interference have led to suspensions from the global body FIFA, stunting its growth at home and chances overseas.
Pakistan, with a population of 220 million, has a national government sports budget of around $15.3 million, far smaller than others in the region. The Pakistan Sports Board, which oversees all sports in the country and their federations, did not respond to interview requests.
Rugby gets no government money but a grant from the global rugby body. If it needs more, it asks the chairman or president of the Pakistan Rugby Union to give from their own pockets.
The national rugby pitch in the eastern city of Lahore is on army land. It lacks changing rooms. It has no seating, so organizers rent chairs for tournaments. Rugby development coach Shakeel Malik concedes it’s hard to attract funding without results, but that it’s hard to get results without funding.
Cricket, which gets no government funding, has a budget of around $66 million. It shot into the stratosphere with a 1992 World Cup win by a national team captained by Imran Khan, who later went on to enter politics and served as prime minister from 2018-2022.
Pakistan has never dominated cricket the way it once did in in squash and hockey; it has only two world championships to its name, and the national team is notoriously unpredictable. But it’s a big business with infrastructure to nurture talent, a thirst for empire building, rampant commercialism, and a steady supply of domestic and international matches for TV. It’s so embedded in Pakistani life that the prime minister approves the appointment of the cricket board chairman.
Its rise in the 1990s coincided with the beginning of the end for hockey and squash.
Pakistan was the superpower of squash for decades, winning the British Open 17 years in a row by 1963. Specifically, one family, the Khans, ruled the sport. The last of the dynasty — Jahangir Khan, a former World No. 1 racket-wielding machine — was unbeaten for hundreds of matches. He won the British Open 10 years in a row until his final victory in 1991.
Khan told The Associated Press that even he doesn’t understand how the family amassed as many trophies as they did, without facilities and investment. “Even today, Pakistan’s name comes first in squash, and so does this family’s name,” he said, speaking at the squash complex named after him in Karachi.
He’s pained by its decline. Pakistan is now 65th in the world men’s squash rankings. Khan said the sport failed to build on his family’s legacy.
He argues that mismanagement had undermined the sport and that players need to show more achievement to attract sponsorship. “If people have set a bar, it’s up to you to make the most of it and build on it. Funding is not a solution. You produced a world champion when you had nothing.”
And there is also cricket’s stranglehold. “It’s not necessary to have all the talent playing one thing,” he said.
In the heyday of field hockey, people turned out in the tens of thousands to watch matches, said Samiullah Khan, a player who helped win Pakistan a stack of medals in the sport at the Olympics, World Cup and Asian Games until the 1990s.
“It hurts my heart” to see the current state of hockey, he said. He said Pakistan’s teams didn’t adjust to changes like the synthetic turf and rule-changes in Europe that, in his view, turned the sport into “a free-for-all.”
“Hockey became like any other sport, like rugby. The power left, the skill left,” he said.
But there is hope, and a love that lingers for hockey. In a Karachi suburb, about a dozen young women pad up for practice on a team with the Karachi Hockey Association.
Kashmala Batool, 30, has been playing hockey for almost half her life. “It’s our national game,” she said. “Despite it not getting support or government funding, the enjoyment we get playing our national game can’t be found in any other.”
Shazma Naseem, the goalkeeper, started out in college and has been playing at the national level for five years. She sees the enthusiasm her parents still have for the sport and feels a duty to keep it going.
“It’s absolutely our job, to have played hockey so well, to have made our name in it, so that future generations know about hockey, that this is also a game.”
ISLAMABAD: Pakistan will play three T20Is against Afghanistan in Sharjah by the end of March, Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) boss Najam Sethi announced on Sunday, a day after the Asian Cricket Council (ACC) meeting took place in Bahrain.
Australia were scheduled to play three One Day Internationals (ODIs) in the UAE in March. However, Cricket Australia announced they were withdrawing from the series in protest against the Taliban government’s restrictions on women’s education and employment in the country.
Sethi, who serves as the chair of the PCB’s managing committee, wrote on Twitter that Pakistan would play three T20Is against Afghanistan to “compensate” Afghanistan for the Australia pullout.
“Pleased to announce PCB will play 3xT20s against Afghanistan in Sharjah end March to compensate Afghanistan following Australia’s pullout from bi lateral series against it,” Sethi said.
Pleased to announce PCB will play 3xT20s against Afghanistan in Sharjah end March to compensate Afghanistan following Australia’s pullout from bi lateral series against it. I also supported ACC decision to grant Afghanistan equal share of ACC revenues like BCCI, PCB, SLC & BCB.
Sethi’s announcement comes on the heels of the ACC’s executive board meeting held in Bahrain on Saturday. During the meeting, the issue of the upcoming Asia Cup 2023 venue also came up for discussion, according to the PCB.
Pakistan are slated to host the Asia Cup 2023 tournament. However, the matter became controversial in October last year after Indian cricket board chief and ACC president, Jay Shah, said India would not travel to Pakistan to take part in the tournament. Shah suggested a neutral venue for the tournament.
“The Board agreed to continue discussions on operations, timelines, and any other specifics with a view to ensure the success of the tournament,” the PCB said in a statement last week. “An update on the matter would be taken on the next ACC Executive Board Meeting to be held in March 2023.”
As per various international media reports, Sethi told Shah point-blank that if India does not play Asia Cup 2023 in Pakistan, the green shirts would consider not going to India for the 50-over ODI World Cup scheduled to be held in India later this year.
Barcelona exploit Madrid’s stumble to open 8-point lead
Alba, Gavi and Raphinha scored a goal each in the second half to give Barcelona their fifth straight victory in the league
Updated 06 February 2023
MADRID: Barcelona took advantage of Real Madrid’s stumble to kick off the second half of the season with another win and enjoy their biggest lead so far at the top of the Spanish league.
After Madrid’s 1-0 loss at Mallorca, Barcelona extended their 10-game winning streak in all competitions with a comfortable 3-0 victory over Sevilla on Sunday to open an eight-point lead over Madrid after 20 of 38 rounds.
It is the biggest lead by any team this season, putting the Catalan club in firm control as they chase their first league title since 2018-19.
“We are having a great season. We have been playing well, not giving many chances for our opponents,” Barcelona defender Jordi Alba said. “It’s eight points. There’s a lot of league left, but it’s a good gap.”
Alba, Gavi and Raphinha scored a goal each in the second half to give Barcelona their fifth straight victory in the league.
The last game Barcelona failed to win was a 1-1 league draw against Espanyol last year.
Sevilla, who got off to a surprisingly awful start to the season, were coming off two straight league wins that had helped it move further away from the relegation zone. They dropped to 16th place with the loss, two points from the drop zone.
Marco Asensio missed a penalty kick in Madrid’s loss at Mallorca in their last match before traveling to Morocco to play at the Club World Cup.
Madrid were depleted by injuries and rested some players ahead of the Club World Cup,
“We already expected a very tough match,” Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti said. “We had our chances but couldn’t take advantage of them.”
Ancelotti couldn’t count on several injured starters, including striker Karim Benzema, defender Eder Militao and goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, who was dropped from the squad at the last minute after getting injured during the warmup. Ancelotti also rested midfielders Toni Kroos and Luka Modric, who came on in the second half.
Asensio missed a chance to equalize when his 60th-minute penalty kick was saved by Mallorca goalkeeper Pedrag Rajkovic after Madrid forward Vinicius Junior had been fouled. Madrid’s last chance was a header by Antonio Rüdiger that went narrowly wide deep into stoppage time.
The hosts got on the board with an own-goal by Nacho Fernandez, who was replacing Militao in defense. Nacho went for a high cross and deflected the ball into his own net over goalkeeper Andriy Lunin, who started in place of Courtois.
“I hit the ball with my head and unfortunately it went into the top corner,” Nacho said. “It was a complicated match, against a team that is having a good season. It’s a pity that we let three points get away.”
Madrid were coming off a win against Valencia after being held by Real Sociedad. Its opponent in the semifinals of the Club World Cup on Wednesday will be Egyptian club Al Ahly.
It was the second win in three league matches for Mallorca, and the fourth straight at home. They remained midtable with 28 points from 20 matches.
“It’s a good result, moves us further away from the relegation zone,” Mallorca’s Mexican coach Javier Aguirre said. “But there are many matches left, we can’t relax.”
Vinicius was shown a yellow card and will be suspended for Madrid’s next league game against last-place Elche.
Real Sociedad missed a chance to move within three points of Madrid after losing 1-0 to Valladolid at home.
It was the third winless game for the Basque Country club after a nine-game winning streak in all competitions. Sociedad was coming off a 1-0 loss to Barcelona in the quarterfinals of the Copa del Rey, and a 0-0 draw at Madrid in the league.
Newly signed Canadian forward Cyle Larin scored a second-half winner for 13th-place Valladolid, who have won two in a row after five straight losses in all competitions.
Valencia’s struggles continued with a 1-0 defeat at Girona, a result that extended their losing streak to five matches in all competitions.
Valencia have only one win in its last 12 league matches and is sitting just outside the relegation zone.
Martinez scores again as Inter beat Milan in Serie A derby
It was Martinez’s 12th league goal of the season, putting him four behind leading Serie A goalscorer Victor Osimhen
Updated 06 February 2023
MILAN: World Cup winner Lautaro Martinez continued his roaring start to the year as he set Inter Milan on their way to a 1-0 victory over AC Milan in the Derby della Madonnina on Sunday.
Martínez has been in fantastic form since helping Argentina win the World Cup in December and he netted his seventh goal in his last eight matches as Inter consolidated second spot in Serie A with a second win over their fierce rival in less than three weeks.
It was Martinez’s 12th league goal of the season, putting him four behind leading Serie A goalscorer Victor Osimhen, who scored another two on Sunday to help runaway leader Napoli win 3-0 at lowly Spezia.
Inter are 13 points behind Napoli and three points above third-place Roma. They are five points above Lazio, Atalanta and Milan, which has slipped to sixth after a woeful start to the year.
The Rossoneri’s winless run extended to seven matches. That streak included elimination from the Italian Cup and a 3-0 loss to Inter in the Super Cup.
Before the derby, Milan had also conceded an unprecedented nine goals in their past two Serie A matches.
With that perhaps playing in their minds, the Rossoneri defended deep from the start and rarely got out of their own half. Milan had to wait almost an hour for its first shot, and that was off target.
Inter almost took the lead in the 10th minute but Martínez headed just wide of the right upright.
Martinez did better in the 34th as he got away from Simon Kjær at the near post to get his head to a corner and it took a deflection off the Milan defender on the way in.
Romelu Lukaku thought he had scored his first league goal since August, late on, but the whistle had already gone for a foul by him on Malick Thiaw.
Martínez also had a goal ruled out for offside.
Osimhen appears to be firing Napoli to the Serie A title as the Nigeria forward netted for the fifth straight league match.
Spezia had defended well against Napoli’s stellar attack but gifted the visitors a penalty less than 10 seconds after the break when defender Arkadiusz Reca was trying to hold off Matteo Politano but didn’t anticipate that the bounce of the ball would take it onto his outstretched arm.
Khvicha Kvaratskhelia converted the penalty, prompting the game to open up.
Osimhen had a goal ruled out in the 62nd for pulling back Mattia Caldara but he headed in his first in the 68th and doubled his tally five minutes later following another assist from Kvaratskhelia.
Spezia remained five points above the relegation zone.
Torino beat Udinese 1-0 to leapfrog their opponent into the Europa Conference League qualifying spot.
Torino are one point above Udinese and Bologna, who won 2-1 at Fiorentina for its first victory in Florence in 13 years.
Al-Hilal send out timely reminder that they remain Saudi Arabia’s premier club on the big stage
Cristiano Ronaldo and Al-Nassr may have stolen the spotlight in recent weeks, but the reigning Asian champions’ FIFA Club World Cup semifinal spot reinforces an unmatched legacy on the pitch
Updated 05 February 2023
LONDON: Al-Hilal are into the FIFA Club World Cup semifinals for the third time in four years.
Yes, Al-Hilal. Remember them? Four-time Asian champions and three-time defending Saudi Pro League champions. That Al-Hilal. Ring a bell?
For those just tuning their antennae to Saudi football for the first time over the past few months, there was only one club dominating the headlines, and it was not the reigning AFC Champions League winners.
It was, of course, Al-Nassr after their headline-grabbing signing of Cristiano Ronaldo, which catapulted them into the international consciousness like no club from Saudi Arabia had ever achieved. Not even Al-Hilal.
To highlight just how much the yellow half of Riyadh was dominating the narrative, one UK-based pundit even claimed Al-Nassr were the most successful Saudi side in recent years — despite Al-Hilal winning five of the past six Saudi Pro League titles.
Al-Hilal? They were cast as a mere footnote to the Al-Nassr-Ronaldo storyline. The Ronaldo-shaped shadow cast not just over Al-Hilal but every other Saudi club was hard to escape.
All that global attention on their Riyadh rivals, while they were still serving a transfer ban and unable to counter the signing of Ronaldo with a move of their own, would have stung a club that has made the AFC Champions League final in three of the past four seasons — something Al-Nassr has not yet managed to achieve even once.
While the world has been busy occupying itself with every exploit of Al-Nassr and Ronaldo — and clips of his first goal for his new club were shown in all corners of the globe over the past few days — Al-Hilal have served a timely reminder that, not only do they still exist, but that they do their best talking on the pitch and have no intention of ceding anything to their crosstown rivals.
Their dramatic win over Wydad Casablanca at the Club World Cup in Rabat on Saturday was a huge statement from Ramon Diaz’s side: “Don’t forget about us.”
The win was all the more impressive given that they are still missing a number of their best players through injuries sustained in Saudi Arabia’s stunning win over Argentina in Qatar just over two months ago.
Talisman and midfield maestro Salman Al-Faraj and energetic full-back Yasser Al-Shahrani both remain sidelined and were absent from the team that silenced the parochial Wydad fans inside the Prince Moulay Abdellah Stadium.
But while the veteran duo were absent, there were a host of other World Cup stars on show, including Saud Abdulhamid, Ali Al-Bulayhi, Mohammed Kanno and star man Salem Al-Dawsari.
The only sour note in an otherwise historic win was the red card for Kanno, whose absence from midfield against Brazil’s Flamengo on Tuesday could be sorely felt, especially with Al-Faraj already missing.
Al-Hilal’s passage to the semifinals continues a golden period for Saudi football, with the national team’s heroics in Qatar fresh in the memory and Ronaldo’s signing generating international attention for the domestic league the likes of which has never been seen before.
But for a club like Al-Hilal, playing at the pinnacle of the club game is not just where they want to be, it is where they expect to be. On both previous occasions they have played at the Club World Cup, they have also advanced to the semifinals; losing to Flamengo in 2019 before coming up short against Chelsea in the 2021 edition.
They will be hoping it is third time lucky in Morocco, but standing in their way again will be Flamengo.
Such is the belief and mindset of the club that, when players like Odion Ighalo and Al-Dawsari mention they are not just playing to make up the numbers but have ambitions of winning the Club World Cup, it is not just hubris.
Do not rule them out from becoming just the third Asian club to make the final of the Club World Cup because Al-Hilal does not just expect success, it demands it. The name carries an aura right around the continent. They are the top dogs and, more importantly, they know it. Not just that, they revel in it; being the center of attention, the envy of all others, is what they crave most.
“The club has to be at the top, always, to meet our fans’ hopes, to win the most trophies,” club legend Nawaf Al-Temyat, who retired in 2008, told Arab News in 2021.
“Any player who can’t play under pressure won’t be a superstar. Playing under pressure is a key factor to show the real personality of the player. This is what the young players must learn,” he added.
One player who mastered playing under pressure is arguably the club’s greatest player, Sami Al-Jaber. During a glittering career that spanned almost 20 years, he played and won everything for Al-Hilal.
“Al-Hilal is not just a football club, Al-Hilal is a legacy, it’s a very big legacy in Saudi Arabia and the region,” he told Arab News back in 2017.
“(It’s) just like my family, just like home and my family. It’s a club that has a legacy and it’s more than just a football club. You can see the history, and in Asia I would say it’s No. 1.
“I can’t say any more than the club is more than a football club, it’s a community.”
While the Club World Cup may not generate the same emotion as its international counterpart, it still comes with significant international exposure and Al-Hilal will bask in taking the spotlight away from Al-Nassr, even if just momentarily.