LAHORE, Pakistan, Feb 22, 2010 (AFP) - Pakistan’s hockey team left for New Delhi on Monday for the tenth World Cup starting next week, with the one-time world champions hopeful of a comeback after years of disappointment.
An 18-man squad led by full-back Zeeshan Ashraf will play arch-rivals and hosts India on Sunday in the opening game, amid diplomatic tensions between the neighbours.
“It is a tough test for us, but we have prepared extensively and hope that by winning the World title we will revive our hockey,” said Ashraf.
Pakistan, who have won a record four world titles, have faded badly in the last decade.
Their last major title was in 1994 at the World Cup in Australia and they finished eighth at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, their worst-ever placing.
The tournament hosts are hardly faring any better and have not won a major title since the Moscow Olympics in 1980.
“We are hoping that this World Cup revives Asian glory,” said Pakistan Hockey Federation secretary and team manager Asif Bajwa before the team’s departure.
“Pakistan and India are two important countries in Asian hockey and must do well to lift the standard.” Pakistan boast the services of penalty corner expert Sohail Abbas, who has a world record tally of 306 goals.
This will be the Pakistan hockey team’s first visit to India since 2006, and Bajwa said the players will be heading to India as “ambassadors of peace.” “Players have always been ambassadors of peace and we hope to play hockey without any fears and hope that Indo-Pak sporting ties are revived,” said Bajwa.
“When Pakistan plays India it always sparks interest and I hope it’s a very good match which gives a kick start to the event.” Relations between the nuclear-armed rivals have simmered since a November 2008 attack on the Indian financial capital Mumbai, which New Delhi blamed on Pakistan-based militants.
The two nations suspended slow-moving peace talks, but the Indian and Pakistani foreign secretaries are due to meet on Thursday for the first official talks between the South Asian rivals for 14 months.
Reports of threats to sporting stars visiting India also sparked concerns, but Pakistan’s team was cleared to travel to New Delhi last week after a delegation visited the Indian capital and assessed security arrangements.
After facing India, Pakistan play Spain on March 2, England on March 4, South Africa on March 6 and Australia on March 8 in Group B.
Group A comprises defending champions Germany, the Netherlands, South Korea, Canada, Argentina and New Zealand.