On a sports field, Argentina's white and blue stripes are unmissable. They have left a mark on the football, rugby and hockey pitches, and have now turned their attention to kabaddi. While the ancient Indian sport was brought to Argentina in 1999, the country will be making their first international appearance at the 2016 Kabaddi World Cup, which is currently underway in Ahmedabad on Friday.
“Most of the sports teams in Argentina are nicknamed after animals,” says Ricardo Acuna, the team coach. “The rugby team is called Los Pumas, the hockey team is called Lions, we are called Yarara. Its a snake found in the north of the country; it is incredibly fast. It’s strike is like the kabaddi touch.”
Acuna is the one who brought the sport to Argentina, after he saw some Indian expats play it in a field in Vancouver, Canada. As the president of the Commission of Alternative Sports in Argentina as well, Acuna had the necessary resources to lay the foundation of the game.
“It was a sport that needed no equipment, and I could teach people the rules in five minutes,” he says. “Our commission has 80 alternative sports, and for the last five years in a row kabaddi has been elected as the most important.”
They started smartly; targetting the Physical Education teachers, who not only make the core of the current team, but also helped spread the worlds in their respective schools and universities. Rugby was one of the seven sports Acuna had played professionally, and used his influence in those circles to make kabaddi a part of the rugby training routine.
The Argentine squad at the World Cup is made up of players from various disciplines. While their 36-year-old captain Sebastien Desocio has a base in taekwondo and judo, they also have players from rugby, wrestling, football and one even from a rodeo, where they have to lasso in a horse.
“I started playing the game in 2013,” says Desocio, who had to take leave from work to represent Argentina in the breakthrough World Cup. “I instantly liked it, because it requires a fusion of a lot of disciplines and skills. You need to run, stop, catch, throw.” Though primarily a defender, the PE teacher from La Plata says he’s equally at ease going into attack.
While Argentina made the final of the last football World Cup, in 2014 at Brazil, and the men’s hockey team bagged the gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics, not much is expected from the kabaddi team, who are making their World Cup debut. But being such a strong sporting nation means the players have a necessary base physicality.
“We are a country of 40 million,” says Acuna, “And almost everyone, irrespective of their gender, plays football. It’s a country obsessed with football, they have it on 15 channels at a time. Everyone wants to be (Lionel) Messi; they think about the game all day. But because of it, Argentines have great footwork. Most athletes from Latin American countries have very strong core and legs. They have the requisite skills set for kabaddi. But of course they haven’t played it at an international level, so they can’t match up to traditional teams.”
There are currently six clubs in Argentina that promote the sport. With the Argentine kabaddi federation receiving a confirmation for the World Cup in April, they trained four months for the competition. A national championships was held on 14 September to select the side that would showcase their country’s potential at the World Cup.
“I think we will surprise a few teams,” says Acuna, adding that they are particularly keen on inflicting defeat on England. “That’s a sports rivalry which has been on since the ‘Hand of God’,” he jokes, referring to Diego Maradona’s goal against England in the 1986 football World Cup.
The team, made of amateurs, made their international debut against a local side, Rajkot Lions, on Saturday, when they lost 54-43. A day later, they took on kabaddi powerhouse Iran and were beaten 21-79. “All I wanted from the team is for them to get Iran all out once, and they did it,” says Acuna. “Iran have been in the game for a long time and are one of the strongest teams, but technically India is at another level.”
To make the team more competitive, the International Kabaddi Federation gave them the services of renowned Indian coach BC Ramesh on their arrival to India on 28 September. The team has had two sessions of training and practice since and look ready to make the most of this chance.
“Earlier, most of the coaching came in form of YouTube, videos gives by the IKF and online streaming of Pro-Kabaddi League,” says Acuna. “But their understanding of the game has improved a great deal. We have team meetings every night; just on Monday we had an extensive session on rules and regulations. Argentina will need some time to compete with the best, but this generation has made a start.”
The team has eschewed the temptation of filling the squad with Indian expats, and are entirely made of local Argentine talent. They begin their World Cup campaign against South Korea on 9 October.