Moments after the last league stage game at the 2016 Kabaddi World Cup, a teary-eyed Japan captain Masayuki Shimokawa led his team to greet the Thailand team, which had stolen the game from them 37-33 in the dying minutes to move to the semifinals. The first man Shimokawa met was the Thai captain, Khomsan Thongkham, who, standing a foot taller, gave him a long embrace and a few words.
Thongkham, 24, will lead his team of high school and university students in Friday's semifinal against India. The unassuming side of high school boys has impressed all with fearless kabaddi.
Thailand have been the most discreet side of all this World Cup – they don't have the flamboyance of Asian favourites such as India or Korea or the showy character of non-Asians such as USA or Poland. The team comprises high school and university students, barring just the captain, who is employed in the army.
After being thrashed by Iran in their first game, they crept back on the table with four wins in a row and are now in the final four, quite a deal for a country where just 22 out of 76 provinces recognise kabaddi as a sport.
The Thai Rise
Of these, it was Thailand’s encounter against Poland that truly set them apart. The small-framed, teenage boys with barely any facial hair popping out, were taking on European men who seemed twice their size and had shown warrior-like moves on the mat.
But Thongkham’s side used more brain than brawn and began capturing the Poles with ease. The game, where the captain scored nine points and his team was always in the lead, ended with the score reading Thailand 65 – 25 Poland. The schoolboys had schooled their opponents.
Suddenly, the Thai defence looked like a cohesive unit, and they had to thank Thongkham’s stint with Puneri Paltan and defender Tin Phonchoo’s exposure with Dabang Delhi for it. In fact, they would also have wanted to thank Telugu Titans coach Dr Ramesh Bhendigiri who was appointed by the Asian Kabaddi Federation last year to train Thai boys and girls and he did so, using videos of the Indian team in the seven months he spent in and around Krabi.
In the next two games, Thailand beat the talented Kenya 53-21 and the clueless USA 69-22. By the time they faced Japan in a virtual quarterfinal, the school boys were already favourites with commentators.
“Our game versus Iran was the toughest… but I was most nervous before the Japan game,” Thongkham told us through a translator on Thursday, adding, “Only qualifying for semifinals would have given us reasons to promote kabaddi back home. Ideally we need to win gold for that.”
A military approach to kabaddi
Given the circumstances for Thai boys back home, kabaddi can only thrive if it is introduced as part of military training, Thailand coach Somprach Phonchoo feels. “Our opportunities are limited, we can only work with students, as after passing out, they leave sports and look for jobs. Kabaddi does not get them employment,” he tells us.
In Thailand, all men over 21 years of age must serve in the Army, but a peculiar system of recruitment allows them to participate in a lottery and opt out. If they pick a black card out of a wooden box, they are exempted but should it be red, they must serve for two years.
"We are lobbying along with the Kabaddi Association of Thailand to push kabaddi as a recreational sport in military training. That will get more players into the fold and the sport will grow. We also hope our National Olympic Committee recognises our efforts here and sends a team to future Asian Games,” Phonchoo tells us.
The boys who have missed nearly three months of studies will face their biggest exam in the World Cup semi-final. If Thongkham felt nervous in the previous encounter, the knockout game against India amidst raucous cheers for the home team would get way more butterflies into his stomach.
Updated Date: Oct 21, 2016 12:48 PM