THE IRANIANS SLAPPED their thighs in victory, but it felt like a slap on India’s face. For the first time in 28 years, ever since kabaddi was introduced at the Asian Games, the Indian men’s team had failed to make the final. Iran, which has replaced Pakistan as India’s rival in the sport, had been snapping at the champions’ heels for the past few years and, on August 23, finally caught up, announcing its golden ambition in the semifinal at the Theatre Garuda in Jakarta.
The Iranians had gathered past losses in their minds, but played as if they had forgotten, as if it was they who had dominated the sport for decades. The match ended 27-18, and the Indians wept. The women had a slightly better campaign, reaching the final. However, they, too, fell to Iran, 24-27. And they, too, wept.
In the aftermath, as everyone reeled from the shock, there were claims that it was an inside job. No, not the controversial selection decisions, though they could have played a part. This was about the two coaches who plotted to fell India.
A few days before the semifinal against Iran, the men’s team was handed its first defeat in Asian Games history, a close 23-24 loss, by the South Koreans in the group stage. Korea’s coach Ashan Kumar Sangwan, incidentally, was the man who captained India to gold in 1990, when the sport was introduced at the Asian Games. “For us [as Indians], this was the worst that could have happened,” Sangwan told THE WEEK. “We had been winning like tigers. [But, this result means] there is some weakness. The team is good, the players are good. But, the way they were told to play was wrong.”
The South Koreans, on their part, have improved by leaps and bounds. They have embraced kabaddi as their own, and are not reluctant of showing it off. One of their defenders, Seong Ryeol Kim, has a tattoo that says “Korea kabaddi ka gaurav (pride of Korean kabaddi)” inked on his chest.
Though the sport is yet to pick up in the country and there is no domestic kabaddi league, the federation and Olympic association have invested in the growth of the game. According to a recent report, the Koreans train at a residential camp in Busan for 10 months a year, and have been frequently sent to India to train under experienced coaches.
Moreover, the players, a few handful at the national level, have submitted themselves to their coach. Reportedly, after defeating India, the muscular lads cried and apologised to Sangwan. “Sorry papa,” they said, probably thinking the coach would be angry that they had defeated his countrymen. He was not. “We have just these 10 to 12 players in the whole country, and we have done what we could with them,” Sangwan told THE WEEK. “I have been with the team for three months now. They watch the matches, they watch videos. My coaching was focused on strategy. What to do in which position. Now, probably, after having played a final for the first time in Asian Games history, the sport could pick up in South Korea.”
As we stood talking, some of the Indian coaches came up to him, hugged him, and discussed the final. Iran had just beaten South Korea 26-16 to claim gold.
“Does India’s loss mean the sport will grow in more countries?” I asked. “Obviously, the other countries will take heart from this,” he said. “The air of fear India had created seems to have dissipated. They now believe that they can beat India. Kabaddi has become quite popular now, in part because of the Pro Kabaddi League. After seeing this result, more countries are likely to take up the sport.”
En route to the venue, Lee Byoungwook, a South Korean journalist, had told me that the win over India would do wonders to the popularity of kabaddi in his country. “Compared with other sports, our kabaddi team is poor,” he said. “They do not have the same facilities. But, because of their performance here, the sport will become a sensation in the country.”
The Koreans might still be flirting with the sport, but Iran, the new champions, have had a long relationship with it. The former Iranian captain Meraj Sheykh, who was dropped from the Asian Games team, had once claimed that the sport, 5,000 years old, had originated in the Iranian province of Sistan. And, now, with his teammates dethroning India, historians might want to take him up on the claim.
Sangwan, who had previously coached the Iranian men’s team for two years, and takes credit for shaping the current team, said: “When I was there, kabaddi was being played in every locality. They have managed to go to different parts of the country and pick up talent.”
Shailaja Jain, the other coach who beat India, agreed. “The sport has become so popular in Iran that everyone, from children to the elderly, know what kabaddi is,” she told THE WEEK. An emotional Jain was speaking to the media after her team defeated the Indian women in the final. “I got seven months to train these girls, and in that time, I saw that the league matches there threw up a lot of good players,” she said. “Also, importantly, the girls in Iran are not only playing kabaddi, they are playing rugby, karate and taekwondo. And, that is why they are at peak fitness compared to Indian players. They are fast learners. During my tenure, I did not have to focus on their fitness at all.”
The exposure to the Pro Kabaddi League, it seems, helped a lot. “It has allowed players from other countries to learn all our tactics,” said Jain. “The Iranian girls are picking up the language and even talk to me in broken Hindi now.”
The PKL helped financially, too. As kabaddi is not one of the main sports in Iran, the funding is comparatively less. However, playing the PKL gives players good money and a lot of experience.
Jain also appreciated the freedom she was given. “Whatever I wanted, they gave me,” she said. “I had the liberty to select the team. If anyone objected, I could complain to the top officials. When I was a selector in Maharashtra, if anyone would come to me with a referral, I would straightaway reject that person. I cannot work in India like I did in Iran.” The system, she suggested, would hold her back.
However, be it the system, complacency or something else, India now has to accept that its monopoly on kabaddi has been broken; the others are catching up. And this was on display at the men’s final. Amid duelling chants of “Iran” and “Korea”, both teams came out to Indian music. There were nerves, but they were excited. History was theirs to make. Waving to the crowds, players from both nations jived to the beat. It was no longer an alien game, no longer were they the underdogs. There were Indians among the crowd, too, perhaps more out of habit than anything else. At one point during the match, one of the Iranian players had dumped a Korean on the ground, had him in a headlock and posed for the cameras, flashing a sparkling smile. They belonged here, he seemed to say.