“In Argentina, we do everything with a ball,” Gabriel Sacchi, a member of the Argentine kabaddi team says with a hint of helplessness. In a country obsessed with football, the national appetite for other sports is limited, if not non-existent.
So, for an Asian sport that doesn’t involve a ball, surviving 19 years is a commendable feat. The Argentine Association of Kabaddi was founded way back in 1999, but it wasn’t until 2011 that a handful of locals could play a game that would resemble kabaddi.
Ricardo Acuna, who coaches the Argentine kabaddi team, introduced the sport to nation. He was hooked to it after watching some Indian expats play it in Vancouver, Canada, and decided to bring it to his homeland.
The simplicity of the sport meant explaining the rules to the locals barely needed breaking a sweat, but Acuna at the time didn’t know the name of the game he was trying to preach.
Through a network of physical education teachers, Acuna helped kabaddi take its baby steps in Argentina. Fast forward to 2018; Argentina have already played a World Cup and are again rubbing shoulders with the best at the Kabaddi Masters in Dubai.
“In the World Cup, we didn’t know the game well. We used to go on the mat and take it as it comes. But now we have learnt. We have a strategy. Everyone understands that they have a specific job in the team. Our primary aim is to defend well and try to score bonus points in our raids,” Rafael Acevedo, the captain of the Argentine kabaddi team told Firstpost
“We have small targets. Of course we go on to the mat believing that we can win, but realistically if we can catch the top players, or score some all-outs, it will be huge for us,” Sacchi, the left-corner defender, added.
It doesn’t get any tougher than facing Iran, the World Cup runners-up, in the opening game. But three minutes into it, Argentina have a positive to take back. They are 3-0 up after surviving two do-or-die raids, and have Iran, slightly stunned. It’s a scoreline that their football team would die for at any given time in their games at the ongoing World Cup, but it’s the Argentine kabaddi team that’s leading. Seven minutes pass, and Argentina are still neck-and-neck with Iran at 5-6. But just when you think the South Americans are coming of age, they lose their composure. Iran get into the groove. The score reads 31-7 in the Asians’ favour as the first half draws to a close.
It’s a harsh lesson for the blue and whites, but it’s all welcome. “The last time, this time and probably the next time, it’s all going to be about learning for us. We know what we are up against, so for us it is all about soaking in that experience. Hence just playing in this tournament is a victory for us,” Sacchi suggests.
As the second half begins, it’s about to get worse. Iran close in on 50, but Argentina are still stuck in single digits. They finally get to double figures, there is a spring in their step. Iran take the foot off the gas, but crucially for Argentina, they manage to capitalise.
The blue and whites get the elusive all-out. The game finishes 54-24 in Iran’s favour. It’s a heavy defeat, but the Argentines are happy. “Our very first game as Argentina was against Iran in a friendly game before the World Cup in 2016. We lost that one 77-12. So we take today’s result as a proof of our improvement,” captain Acevedo tells reporters with a hint of pride.
Back home in Argentina, kabaddi in not anyone’s profession, but it is also more than just a hobby. Argentina have their own kabaddi league called ‘Liga Nacional’ that is already into its second season. It consists of six men’s teams and three women teams.
The league matches are held once in a month. The lack of infrastructure for kabaddi drives the format. The teams meet every month where they have one-day tournament. There is a winner every month. At the end of the season, depending on number of one-day championships won, a general champion is declared.
“There is just one kabaddi mat in the whole of Argentina. That’s in La Plata in the Buenos Aires province. So every month we meet there for the league. There is no other venue,” Sacchi reveals.
The infrastructure is a problem, but enthusiasm isn’t. “Some teams travel over 300 miles to play the league. Only one team has mat to train on. Rest of us either train on grass or sand,” Acevedo divulges.
“One of our teammate here just started playing kabaddi in December last year. Here at Kabaddi Masters, there is a weight limit for participation. His desire to play for Argentina was so high, that he followed a strict diet and lost 15 kgs in the last few months, and now he is here playing at the top level,” he added.
This passion, Sacchi believes, has played a key part in whatever progress Argentina have showed on the mat. There’s nobody to teach them the technicalities of kabaddi and YouTube videos of the Pro Kabaddi League are their best bet.
“We received training from BC Ramesh during the World Cup for a week, but that was it. We don’t have any coaches in Argentina. All that we learn and try to do is by watching kabaddi videos on the internet,” he reveals.
But that hasn’t stopped kabaddi from growing in the football-crazy South American nation. Playing with the ball since childhood usually makes an Argentinian nimble-footed, and the kabaddi community hopes anyone that joins them has the physical ability to play the sport.
“We don’t pick and choose players to play in the league. Anyone and everyone is welcome. We just want more and more people to get involved and play in our league. From there we can see who is good enough to represent Argentina,” Sacchi says.
So far, the plan seems to be working. “If you see the videos of our matches last season and compare with this season, there is a huge difference. The level, I feel has certainly gone up,” he adds.
The Kabaddi Masters will be the first kabaddi competition to be telecast live in Argentina. At a time when the nation is pained by failings of their football team, Acevedo hopes their countrymen take solace from their efforts in Dubai.
“For the first time, our people are going to watch us play on TV. Everyone is unhappy after Argentina lost against Croatia, but we hope we can make up for it with our efforts here. I don’t know if we are going to win a game or score a certain number of points, but I believe that after watching this tournament, more people will join us for the next round of our league. I am sure about this,” Sacchi says with confidence.
Despite positive developments in the last two years, Sacchi feels kabaddi has a long way to go in Argentina. Like every other sport apart from football, the process to get government assistance is a big struggle.
“In Argentina, the government only focuses on football. For the government, sports are not very important. So it is very hard for us to develop any sport in this country. As of now, we don’t have any sponsors, but we hope after this tournament, someone back home watches us and comes forward to help,” Sacchi, who has played a host of sports like basketball, swimming and cycling in the past, says.
Kabaddi is popular only in small pockets in the country, and Acevedo believes the nation needs an icon in the sport for it to gain popularity.
“Nobody knew Messi until he joined Barcelona. So I am hoping someone from Argentina gets a chance to play in the Pro Kabaddi League soon, so that we can have a reference or something to be proud about our kabaddi,” the captain says.
Argentina face South Korea next, another kabaddi powerhouse. But the blue and whites are not fazed by the reputation of their opponents.
“We are confident. You put India in front of us and we would still think that we can win,” Sacchi says as he bursts into laughter. The sarcasm in his claim is evident. He hopes a day comes when he can back this claim with the result on the pitch.
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Updated Date: Jun 24, 2018 17:56:57 IST