PIC: Zeeshan Ashraf (left) and Gabbar Singh of Canada in action.
By Kuldip Lal
NEW DELHI, Feb 26, 2010 (AFP) - Skipper Zeeshan Ashraf hopes to celebrate his 32nd birthday Sunday by leading Pakistan to victory over arch-rivals India in the men’s field hockey World Cup.
The old foes, once the masters of the game, will clash on the opening day in a marquee match that organisers claim had been sold out at the 19,000-seater Dhyan Chand National Stadium.
“It is one of the most important matches of my life,” said Zeeshan. “Hope I can gift myself a win because no team can afford to lose the first match of a tournament.”
The eagerly awaited match gives both sides a chance to shine on the world stage after struggling to keep pace with European and Australian rivals over the past two decades.
India, who won the last of their eight Olympic gold medals in 1980, failed to qualify for the Beijing Games and earned a World Cup berth only by virtue of being the hosts.
Pakistan, whose four World Cup titles are unmatched, have not won a major tournament since their last Cup win in Sydney in 1994 and finished eighth — their lowest Olympic placing — in Beijing.
Pakistan coach Shahid Ali Khan admitted the 12-nation tournament could make or break the Asian giants.
“We need to revive hockey in both India and Pakistan and the World Cup is our best chance to turn the corner,” the former goalkeeper said.
“The first game is crucial. India have the home advantage, but the pressure of performing in front of their home crowd could work in our favour.”
Khan was in the squad in 1982 when Pakistan thrashed India 7-1 in the Asian Games final at the same Dhyan Chand stadium in New Delhi and also won the World Cup in Mumbai the same year.
India, who finished 11th out of 12 in the previous World Cup in Germany in 2006, were excited at playing Pakistan for the first time in a Cup match since 1986.
“People are saying the game is like a final before the final,” said striker Prabhjot Singh.
“I tell them it’s not just this one, all league matches are like a final.” India and Pakistan are drawn with hot favourites Australia, Beijing silver-medallists Spain, England and South Africa in group B, with two teams advancing to the semi-finals.
Group A comprises defending champions Germany, the Netherlands, South Korea, New Zealand, Argentina and Canada.
India, coached by Spaniard Jose Brasa, hope to counter Pakistan’s ace penalty-corner specialist Sohail Abbas with three drag flickers of their own in Sandeep Singh, Diwakar Ram and Dhananjay Mahadik.
Abbas, 34, the first player in the sport to score more than 300 goals, goes into his fourth World Cup carrying the hopes of an entire nation.
“I want to make it a memorable tournament for my team and myself,” he said.
"If we can begin well against India, we have the ability to go far in the tournament.” Coach Brasa was quietly confident of India’s chances, saying the team had prepared well despite the build-up being marred by a pay dispute that was resolved after a three-day strike by the players.
“I am not predicting anything, but we are ready to face the best,” said Brasa.