Hockey World Cup 2018: 'Belgium will eliminate Pakistan,' says master-coach Siegfried Aikman
As the Odisha Hockey World Cup heads into the pulsating but unforgiving knockout phase, a few teams have had to head home a lot earlier than they would have anticipated, while the French have confounded the pundits and made a mockery of the rankings, just as the Irish women did at London earlier this year.
When a third-ranked Belgian side takes on thirteenth-ranked Pakistan in the crossovers, does it need a soothsayer to make a prediction as to which of them is more likely to progress to the quarterfinals?
Indeed, that may well be the case, simply because of the phenomenal past achievements of one of the greatest sides ever, whose steep decline and painfully slow resurrection has been the predominant topic of discussion in the world of hockey.
Shane McLeod's Belgian side may well start favorites in the crossover stage but have yet to win a World Cup gold, and have been part of the event just six times since first appearing at the Amstelveen edition in 1973.
In stark contrast, Pakistan has been part of every single edition of the World Cup ever since it's inception in 1971, missing out only in 2014 when they failed to qualify, and remain the most successful side in the history of the competition having won four gold medals.
When Pakistan ruled the hockey world, the Red Lions had not even begun to whimper. The great Shahbaz Ahmed was at his peak when the Men in Green won gold at Sydney in 1994. Back then, the Belgians failed to win a single pool match and narrowly avoided the wooden spoon by defeating Belarus by a lone goal.
At Kuala Lumpur in 2002, an elegant Pakistan team beat the Belgians by a 3-2 margin, thanks to a brace from Sohail Abbas, one of the greatest drag-flickers of all time. While Pakistan finished 5th in the 16-nation tournament, the Belgians ended up in the 14th position.
Yet, the most successful team in the history of the World Cup just about managed to sneak into the crossovers at Bhubaneswar, but will, in all probability, be unable to progress any further say the experts.
Siegfried Aikman, coach of the Japanese men's team has been following the action closely at Bhubaneswar and opines that the former Wizards of world hockey currently do not have what it takes to compete with the best teams in the world.
"Belgium is a very organized team, who are ambitious. They have seen Pakistan struggle in this tournament and will be able to eliminate Pakistan."
Hockey aficionados are of the firm opinion that a strong Pakistan team is essential for the game to retain its old charm but a severe cash crunch and other internal issues seem to have derailed the resurrection process which had resulted in improved performances earlier this year.
Aikman too laments the fact that Pakistan's exit will indeed sadden hockey lovers around the world but stresses that the current team lacks the quality to progress any further in the tournament.
"How sad - that is because everyone wants Pakistan to do well. Pakistan is unfortunately not in the best shape in this tournament. They have 3 players who can compete at this challenging level - and they are Irfan Sr, Rashid Mehmood, and goalkeeper Imran Butt. The other players are not ready for this level yet."
Captain Muhammad Rizwan Sr. did not take the field against the Netherlands and will play no further part in the action at Bhubaneswar aggravating Pakistan's problems even further.
Yet, if the Pakistanis defy the odds and somehow manage to get past a Belgian side who are themselves attempting to cope with the loss of Emmanuel Stockbroekx and the redoubtable John-John Dohmen, they may well fancy their chances of making it as far as the semifinals if their pool match against the Germans is anything to go by.
The Germans managed a hard-fought and unconvincing 1-0 victory over a resolute Pakistan side in the second match of Pool D and now await the winners of the Pakistan-Belgium clash in Thursday's quarterfinal.
The Pakistan defenders performed admirably against Stefan Kermas' boys whose attacking firepower is second to none, and may even have earned a draw if the strikers had managed to convert the chances which they craftily created.
While Pakistan's display in their opener was encouraging in spite of the loss, the subsequent insipid draw against Malaysia followed by a 1-5 defeat against The Netherlands has raised serious doubts about the preparedness of a side who were beginning to show signs of a grand return to the big stage.
Coach Roelant Oltmans' exit at the eleventh hour was the last thing Pakistan needed and hockey lovers will perhaps need to wait longer for the former giants to regain their lost glory.