Kabaddi Masters Dubai: South Korea's passionate band of international achievers long for national relevance

South Korean kabaddi players bustled on the court at the Al Wasl Sports stadium in Dubai on Wednesday. The score kept ticking, slowly inching towards the 50-point mark. For newcomers Argentina, another harsh lesson was in the making. Eventually, the Koreans ran out 54-25 winners, ensuring their place in another semi-final of an international event.

Korea are no veterans in the sport. It’s been just eight years since their first appearance in kabaddi at Asian Games. However, their few yet significant list of achievements in this brief period suggest, they are no rookies either.

In 2014, Korea made their first mark on the international stage by winning a bronze medal at the Incheon Asian Games. The host nation won two games before losing to India in the semi-finals. The performance was a vast improvement over their maiden campaign in Guangzhou where they had lost all their games while failing to even cross the 20-point mark in those ties.

“The bronze medal at Asian Games was crucial for us. It made us strong as a team. It gave us a lot of belief. There was a feeling within the team that we could compete with the likes of India and Iran,” Jang Kun Lee, the Korean skipper and perhaps the nation’s best ever player, reminisced.

The success set Korea on an upward climb on the ladder of international kabaddi, but the impact of the medal didn’t go much beyond a mental boost.

“Kabaddi is not very popular in Korea. Not many people there know about the sport. Even after we won bronze medal in Asian Games, it was just a few people in Incheon and the volunteers at the stadium who knew about us and our achievement,” Jang lamented.

 Kabaddi Masters Dubai: South Koreas passionate band of international achievers long for national relevance

South Korea have made great progress in kabaddi over the last five years. Image Courtesy: Korea Kabaddi federation

As the dust settled on the Incheon Games, Korean kabaddi continued to make its mark in India’s Pro Kabaddi League. PKL always had a bunch of Korean players. On an average, 10-12 Korean players have participated in the league every season.

Jang has been among the best foreign players in the league. In 72 matches, he has amassed 351 points, the most by any overseas player. He is the tenth best raider in the league’s history with 332 raid points and has been a mainstay in the Bengal Warriors side. The Korean captain will become the only player to play for the same franchise for the sixth consecutive season.

Jang’s teammates haven’t scaled the same heights, but the likes of Seong Ryeol Kim, Tae Deok Eom and Hong Dong Ju have made their presence felt.

Back home though, there’s precious little for the players to compete in. It’s a problem that Korean kabaddi has struggled to overcome in the past few years. “There are just two very small kabaddi competitions in Korea. It’s played among University teams. There are about 6-8 sides that compete. But the level is not very high,” Seong Ryeol Kim, an all-rounder in the Korean team revealed.

That doesn’t mean that the Koreans don’t put in hard yards. The players train in Busan, the city with the nation’s only kabaddi turf, for 10 months in a year. The team mainly consists of University students studying Physical Education. Both Jang and Kim have a master’s degree in Physical Education, but the former doesn’t have a job. He is not the only one in Korean kabaddi side. Fortunately for the 26-year-old Korean skipper, the PKL provides a great financial boost. Not everyone is that lucky.

“I work with the federation. There are few people in our team that work in the kabaddi federation,” Kim reveals.

“I do everything for the federation. If I’m asked to cook food, I think I will do it,” joked the 33-year-old Kim.

The federation is supported by the Korea Olympic Committee since the 2014 bronze medal win. Monetarily, the sum isn’t enough to help rapid growth of the sport in the country, but the federation does manage to pay the players a monthly salary, something that isn’t obvious in kabaddi across the globe.

“The salary we get is very less. But there are other benefits. If we manage to win a gold medal at the Asian Games, our players would be exempted from military service,” Kim said.

In South Korea, for every youngster serving in the military for two years is mandatory. Kim has completed his service tenure and feels it is tad tougher than bringing down strong, well-built men on kabaddi mat. So there’s an added incentive for the players to push a little harder.

“The military service is exempted only if we win gold at Asian Games. A silver or bronze won’t do the trick. Korea is a sporting powerhouse in Asia, so only an Asian Games gold or any Olympic medal is needed for that to happen,” divulged Korean coach Cho Jae-Ho, who was a national champion in judo during his time.

However, more than any incentive, the passion of these Korean players has helped them break the sub-continental dominance in kabaddi to an extent. The players have dedicated their lives to a game that is obscure in the nation.

Korean all-rounder Seong Ryeol Kim sports a tattoo with Hindi text on his chest. Firstpost

Korean all-rounder Seong Ryeol Kim sports a tattoo with Hindi text on his chest. Firstpost

Kim has made sure he needs no reminder of the fact that he represents his nation. He carries a permanent tattoo on his chest that reads “Korea Kabaddi ka Gaurav” (Pride of Korean Kabaddi).

The passion reflects in the efforts the east-Asian nation has put in getting themselves on the global map of kabaddi. Prior to the 2014 Asian Games, a batch of 12 Korean players came to Sports Authority of India, Gandhinagar for a three-week long camp in 2012. They returned for a 45-day one the next year. They received training under coach Jaivir Sharma and the improvement in their standards was apparent in Incheon a year later. It was a time they rubbed shoulders with the likes of Sandeep Narwal, Rahul Chaudhari and Deepak Niwas Hooda who were at the Gandhinagar center as junior players.

Before the Kabaddi Masters, the Koreans had a week-long camp in Hyderabad where they were guided by Puneri Paltan coach Ashan Kumar.

Having trained under three Indian coaches in the last four years, the Koreans believe they have improved on the tactical aspect of the game.

“In 2012-13, we just played the game the way it came. In 2014, we had an Indian coach so we just tried to do what he asked us to. We learnt a lot about tactics from him. Now we have developed our skills, and can play the game according to a strategy and react to the context of the game,” Jang stated.

In 2016, Korea’s big moment came in the opening game of the World Cup in Ahmedabad when they stunned India. They became only the second team to beat India in standard style kabaddi, and the first one to do so on Indian soil.

“After the win against India, our confidence shot up. We thought we can be the best kabaddi team in Asia,” coach Cho Jae-Ho recalled. The win propelled Korea to the World Cup semi-finals where they were beaten by a very strong Iranian side.

Despite failing to make the final, Korea established themselves as a force in international kabaddi. But back home, there wasn’t even a ripple.

“When we beat India, our families were very surprised. The congratulated us, but when I told my friends about it they replied saying, ‘What’s the big deal?’ They didn’t know kabaddi, so couldn’t understand its significance. In India it was a bigger surprise. There were full-page reports. In Korea there was nothing,” remembers Jang who scored 10 points in the game.

The east-Asian team have since reached two consecutive semi-finals, but few know about their team’s meteoric rise in the last five years. Despite a bronze medal at the 2014 Incheon Games, the team has no sponsor.

“The sponsor on our shirt is our President’s company. We don’t have any sponsors. We get little help from the government and KOC, but it’s not a lot,” Kim explains.

Taking all the drawbacks in their stride, Korea have their sights firmly set on the Asian Games. Coach Cho Jae-Ho feels Dubai weather gives them a perfect chance to get used to conditions in Jakarta. In 2018, the Koreans must return with a medal, perhaps with one of a better colour, just to ensure the little support they are getting continues.

Only a gold will make them relevant in the national sporting picture. The task will take a great deal of doing. “We want the gold medal, and we will fight for nothing less,” Jang says. There’s no shortage of belief and motivation in the Korean ranks. They are gunning for gold, for recognition of their efforts. If that’s not enough then exemption from military service might just drive them all the way

Updated Date: Jun 29, 2018 17:11:13 IST