Beginner’s luck, the cynics might say, but debutants Gujarat Fortunegiants’ table-topping run in the fifth Pro Kabaddi League season is by no means a fluke. Seven wins in 10 matches, two draws and a solitary loss makes them the team to beat this season. At the heart of their success are two Iranian defenders, Fazel Atrachali and Abozar Mohajer Mighani. At a time when teams are yet to fully embrace the involvement of foreign players (not many make the first team), the two Central Asians have overshadowed their Indian counterparts this season.
Individually, Mighani has notched up 30 successful tackles, making him the joint highest with Surender Nada, while Atrachali trails on 26 – 56 of the team’s 100 tackles have come from the two. As specialist corner defenders, they flank the Gujarat defence and have devastated opposition raiders. Yet the charm and brutality of their work rate lies in the chemistry the duo share, along with the language barrier that has now become a boon. “We keep talking to each other in Persian and it confuses the raider,” says Atrachali, smiling. “We tell each other to stay back, or go for an ankle hold. We don’t have to hide it because the raider doesn’t know what we’re saying.”
At the same time, there’s an understanding that the two share that dates as far back as the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou, when they turned up for the Iranian national team’s silver-medal winning run. “I know that if I go for a tackle, Abozar will come in for support, and he knows I will come to help if he makes the tackle,” the 25-year-old adds.
It also helps that both come from a wrestling background, which makes their tackling game even stronger. Hailing from Northern Iran, a ‘kusti’ hub, the pair blended in with the main sport of the region until the Kabaddi Federation of Iran came into the area scouting for talent. For the recruits, the new sport seemed similar.
“In wrestling too you have an ankle hold and a thigh hold, which is the same technique for kabaddi,” says Mighani. “I wrestled for five years, but stopped in 2008 and took up kabaddi properly.” The mentality needed for the new sport also fits the former grapplers. “Wrestlers in Iran don’t like ball sports. They like hitting people, fighting,” Atrachali says. “Here seven players can hit one player, and it’s not foul. In football it would be. You can very easily lift and throw a person on the mat here.”
Among the two, Atrachali is a veteran of the PKL. Now in his fourth season, the Gorgan-native has already won the title twice, winning it with U Mumba and later with the Patna Pirates. At the auction ahead of the current edition, he became his team’s most expensive purchase, picking up Rs 55 lakh. Mighani meanwhile became the Gujarat franchise’s second most expensive buy, at Rs 50 lakh. Unlike his compatriot though, the 28-year-old is debuting this year. “I didn’t get selected to the 2014 Asian Games team, so I didn’t get a chance to show myself to the international federation,” he says. He did however get selected for the Iran team that travelled to Ahmedabad for the World Cup last September. His 17 successful tackles at the event kept him among the top 10 defenders. Atrachali, in turn, notched 21 – second only to India defender Surjeet Singh’s 23.
Their experience of sharing the dressing room has seen them compete at the Asian Games, the World Cup, and even a year together in the Iranian League. The chemistry forged in the process has bolstered confidence within the Gujarat team’s raiders. Sachin Tanwar, a 19-year-old who is having a solid debut season himself credits his defenders. “There’s not much pressure on me, because I know even if I get out, the defence will get me back,” he says. The Fortunegiants’ success so far has been based on the form of the duo – the three matches the team didn’t win came when both didn’t score well. So far, the Iranian flavour has been sweet for Gujarat.