Kabaddi in Thailand has always managed to attract a certain set of celebrity. Royalty, in fact. Despite the sport’s rustic common-man feel, it’s none other than Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn who serves as the sport’s biggest patron in the country. So much so that at the national championships each year, it is the princess who makes arrangements for the trophy – named after her – and individual awards. “She’s the chief guest there always. So she even gives out prizes to the winners,” says Thai team manager Somprach Phonchoo.
As news broke out of the King’s demise last week, the Thai team made it a point to wear black armbands during their crucial group stage match against Japan in the ongoing World Cup as a symbol of mourning and respect. The team would eventually crash out in the semifinal – the stage they reached for the first time in the three editions of the tournament – losing to hosts India 20-73.
For a sport that hasn’t received much help from the government, and struggles in terms of popularity and monetary gains, it is the Pra Thep, or ‘Princess Angel’ as she is fondly called, who has been a beacon of hope for kabaddi enthusiasts in the country. “In Thailand, we are very lucky that the princess loves the sport,” Phonchoo adds.
Along with the rest of the country, the princess was introduced to the sport at the 1998 Asian Games in Bangkok, where she was present at the opening ceremony and for the opening game – between India and Pakistan – of the then mud-based kabaddi event as well. Since then, the 61-year-old made it a point to attend each and every national championship – played between 22 of the 77 provinces of the Thailand – and hand out the awards at the end.
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Known for her easy connect with the masses and for being approachable, the member of the royal family – considered Thailand’s most popular – took an instant liking for the rustic sport.
While the princess’ contribution to the game just about keeps it afloat in the Thailand, the country’s Olympic commission still didn’t give it much importance. “Since kabaddi isn’t an Olympic sport, they didn’t even let us send teams for the Asian Games,” Phonchoo says.
That outlook changed at the 2010 event in Guangzhou though, where the Thai women were invited to compete in the first women’s event in the sport at the quadrennial competition. “They came back with a silver medal, and the Olympic commission was happy. So they allowed our men to go to Incheon 2014,” Phonchoo says. In South Korea though, the men couldn’t get past the group stage, while the women returned with another medal – bronze this time.
By then though, the princess’ efforts and the women’s team’s performances had earned the sport some recognition.
So much so that when Phonchoo approached the sports ministry for permission to travel to India for the World Cup, it was all cleared without much fuss.
The young squad has more than once proven to be a unit equipped with a sound technical grasp and deceptively strong physiques. It’s a background in Muay Thai – kickboxing – for most of the players that has been a keen attribute to their success. “In Muay Thai you have to stretch to kick and punch, and it has to be like a surprise. That’s very useful for our raiders when they try for toe or hand touches,” he says. Still, Phonchoo is looking toward the inevitable overhaul the team will soon require.
Despite the recent success, there are no jobs available for players. “There is no money. So once players turn 24-25, they graduate from college and start working and cannot practice,” he laments. “That’s why the game is only played in high school and university levels.”
As such, the Thai team that played in India is the youngest, with two 17-year-olds making the ranks and their captain Khomsan Thongkham, at 24, being the eldest.
At the same time, there is a concerted effort to provide jobs to players to allow them to continue the practice once they finish with their academic endeavours.