(MENAFN - Muscat Daily) They had seen some of the best days of hockey in Oman, the glorious decades of sixties and seventies.
Among the 35 odd veteran Omani hockey players who gathered at Park Inn Hotel on Monday night for an informal gathering, many had been part of hockey's popular days in the sultanate when it was the undisputed No 1 sport.
Those were the days when the craze for football in Oman hadn't even picked up. Those were the days when thousands of fans used to brush aside the scorching summer's heat to walk miles to watch their favourite teams battle it out on dust bowls in Muttrah and Muscat, perched on hilltops and houses.
During that time, there used to be intense rivalry among teams like Shaheen, Red Flag, Union, Taki Sport, Lala, Muttrah Tuyian, Muttrah Sport, Mission Hospital, Al Ahli and Eagles. And to go with the high level of competition, fan bases used to be huge as well.
As hockey veterans from these clubs, some of them now in their late seventies, assembled for Monday's gathering as part of the Oman Hockey Association's (OHA) initiative, the common talking point among them was quite obvious - the current decline of hockey in the country.
Of course, Oman has never been a major force at the Asian level. But hockey in the sultanate did attract thousands of fans as the sport was quite aggressively pursued by many clubs till the late seventies.
The competition among teams used to look quite solid back then. There was regular participation from 15 to 18 clubs in the domestic hockey league as well as in the prestigious His Majesty's Cup. Understandably, it was no surprise when the veterans were seen expressing their deep concern over the current plight of hockey in Oman - pursued these days by as few as just seven or eight clubs.
The gathering was an initiative of the newly-formed veteran players' committee of the OHA, which is headed by former national team player and ex-Ahli-Sidab star, Mohammed Shambeh al Raisi.
Speaking to Muscat Daily, H E Naif Obaid al Salami, the first chairman of the OHA in 1983, said, ''It is a nice start, but this should have been done long ago. As former players and administrators who served the game with distinction, we are concerned about the decline of hockey. It was once the most popular sport in Oman. The OHA should take responsibility for the current state of affairs.''
H E Salami, who played in the late sixties, added, ''To get all the veterans together is a nice step. The OHA can seek our experience and guidance to improve the state of the game. I am certain that hockey will regain popularity in Oman if the OHA makes a concerted effort.''
Mohammed Shambeh agrees with H E Salami, echoing the same concern. ''It was great to see veteran stars like Khamis Rajab, Qayeem Rajab, Hashim Shahdost al Balushi, Mahmood Shabaan, Ghareeb Qamber, Darwish Hamdan 'Baz', Abdulrehman Sadiq, Dawood al Raisi, Yaqoob Mirooq and Hussain Haji sitting among us. Many of them are in their late seventies. We wish to see them involved in the sport alongside the fans,'' he added.
Also present on the occasion was Antar Salim, one of the earliest hockey umpires in the sultanate, who is believed to have officiated in matches during the 1950s.
Abdulrehman Sadiq also bemoaned the decline of hockey, saying, ''Our days were simply unbelievable. There were thousands of spectators and hockey was played regularly. Now, you hardly see fans and there are not many clubs practising hockey.''
A former member of the Asian Hockey Federation (AHF) and the International Hockey Federation's (FIH) development and coaching committees, Mohammed Shambeh said the OHA's new committee will hold an annual tournament for veterans and could even send a team abroad. ''We will have six-a-side tournaments and matches against expatriate teams,'' he said.
Dawood al Raisi, the former OHA chief, said that during the seventies, players were willing to play anywhere as there was much more 'passion for the game' back then. ''It (the passion) is now lacking among the players,'' he said.
Mahfoodh al Juma, the OHA's current chairman, is confident of turning things around, though. ''We are keen to raise the popularity and profile of the game. There is a need for more astro-turf pitches here. Also, more and more clubs should support the game,'' he said. ''Right now, Oman has two international standard astro-turf pitches, in Muscat and Sohar. Salalah, too, has a pitch, but it is not of international standard.''
Juma added, ''Unfortunately, the clubs here are not keen on developing hockey. Most of them are only interested in football.''
H E Salami suggested the OHA should use the governor's office of Oman's various governorates to influence the clubs to start promoting hockey again.
S A S Naqvi, former Oman coach, said, ''I have been involved with hockey in Oman for the past 32 years and I believe the OHA is moving in the ri