Their chests puffed, wearing a mean black and green headbands, the Iran team sprinted onto the mat on 7 October in their opening game, against the USA, of the 2016 Kabaddi World Cup. They looked purposeful, menacing, and merciless. “Only gold,” had been Iran captain Meraj Sheykh’s war cry going into the tournament.
Iran are one of India’s major competitors in the ongoing World Cup. But as the group stage progressed they increasingly looked as a very real threat for the title.
Apart from India, it is the only country in which kabaddi is culturally entrenched. The game is supposed to have originated in pre-historic age along the India-Pakistan border almost 4000 years ago. “In Iran, it is 5000 years ago,” boasts Mojtaba Tazike, the Iran team manager at the World Cup, when Firstpost caught up with the team for an interview.
Sitting next to him, Sheykh, animatedly points to the laptop. He has looked up the Wikipedia page for Shahr-E-Sukteh, which he says is the birthplace of kabaddi in Iran. Located in modern-day Sistan and Balochistan province, which also happens to be Sheykh’s native place, it was a bronze-age urban settlement in Persia that dates back to 3200 BC. The sport was then known as Zhu, or Zou.
In the modern era, kabaddi came back to prominence in Iran when the game was introduced at the Asian Games in 1990 Beijing. Though the Iran Amateur Kabaddi Federation was formed only in 2004, a pre-cursor to that was the Community of Kabaddi, a body which came into existence in 1996 and joined the International Kabaddi Federation in 2001.
“We now have our own national League,” says Fazel Atrachali, Iran’s former captain and strong man in defence. He is also one of the biggest international stars in Pro Kabaddi, and has won two titles: season 2 with U Mumba and season 4 with Patna Pirates. The 24-year-old Atrachali is a major draw in Iran’s national League, where he plays for his native state Gorgan.
“In Iran the League is played between states and not clubs,” says Sheykh, who plays for Atrachali’s arch-rivals Sistan. “They are the two big teams.” It is a 16-team League that runs for about three months in a year.
“But like PKL players are allowed to play for any state that pays them,” says Atrachali. “I go to whoever pays me the most,” he chuckles. “Players like me or Meraj get about (equivalent to) Rs 20 lakh, the others will get about Rs 1-2 lakh.”
Apart from a structured set-up, Iran’s formidable game, especially their defence, stems from the fact that most of the players come from a wrestling background. They are big, powerful guys with incredible upper body and grip strength.
“I started wrestling when I was eight,” says Atrachali. “I have also learn judo and used to play football. But after I was 11 I started playing kabaddi. I like playing all sports but the element of danger in kabaddi is what got me hooked. Even now, in the off-season I train with wrestlers.”
The 27-year-old Sheykh, who is leaner and more nimble than Atrachali, says he never liked football but works a lot on his foot speed. “Most of the training is very similar to what we do for wrestling,” he says. “Running, over short or long distances, is the only thing I do differently for kabaddi.”
Pro Kabaddi stars like Sheykh and Atrachali have already brought the team a few fans. And they made a massive first impression on the kabaddi supporters with a 52-15 win over USA in their opening match. Honouring the month of Muharram, they wore green head bands, with ‘Praise the almighty, Allah’ written on it in Persian script, and put in a ruthless performance. Like warriors on a mission.
But the Irani players are not all steel.
In their second match, Iran faced a Thailand team made up mainly of university students. The difference in heft between the two teams was glaring and Sheykh occasionally told his defenders to go easy on the rival raiders once they had caught them.
On Wednesday, 12 October, when Japan took on Poland, most of the Iran team was in attendance. A member of Japan team’s staff sat in the stands with an autographed Japanese flag, and Atrachali and some of his teammates would help him hoist it during TV breaks. “Once we are off the mat we take it easy,” says Atrachali, a cheeky grin perennially pasted on his face.
As much as they embody the spirit of the World Cup, they also bring intensity to a tournament that so desperately lacks it. India may have won four straight major finals against them—two World Cup and two Asian Games—but they will need more than pedigree to keep Iran’s intent in check, if the two giants of the game come to face to face in the final.
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Updated Date: Oct 21, 2016 14:04:53 IST