At the Pro Kabaddi League last year, two Iranians stood out as chief architects of Gujarat Fortunegiants’ run to the final. No matter what the best raiders came up with, Fazel Atrachali and Abozar Mighani would decimate the attack.
By now, the Indians should have known what to expect from the powerful Iranian duo. But when the teams met in the semifinal of the Asian Games, there was still no answer. Together the pair combined to earn almost half their team’s points in a historic 27-18 win over the seven-time champions – Iran’s greatest ever win in the sport.
Of course, the language barrier has always helped them. “We keep talking to each other in Persian and it confuses the raider,” 26-year-old Atrachali told The Indian Express. “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.”
Deception, though, isn’t their greatest trick. Their unorthodox style threw India’s star-studded raider-heavy line-up off. The Iranians don’t wait for a window of opportunity to pounce on a raider. Instead they make their own luck and back each other. It’s a plan so reckless and brash, it somehow just works.
How else can one describe the pair’s decision to trail and capture a retreating Monu Goyat when he was just a foot from the half line. No other defender would do that. But these aren’t your ordinary kabaddi players. In fact, nobody in the Iran squad is.
‘Kushti’, for years, has been the Iranian federation’s favourite scouting ground. All players, Atrachali particularly, are part-time wrestlers in a unique style. “They pour oil all over themselves and wrestle,” explained 1990 Asiad gold medallist Raju Bhavsar during the 2016 World Cup. “Oil makes the body very slippery. They have to work extra hard to get a good grip while wrestling. So when they’re playing kabaddi, their defenders have the technique and extra power to help them.”
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It was a style of training that proved beneficial on the day — Iran managed to induce five super tackles (three defenders or fewer) on the Indians.
Kabaddi in Iran is a far cry from what it was when the country formed a federation ahead of the 2006 Doha Asiad.
“They had seen and played the game before, but it was more a ‘time pass’ sport. The people there were quite lazy about it, especially Fazel,” said Ashan Kumar, who coached Iran in 2010, and incidentally guided South Korea to a win over India two days back. “Usko din raat bhagaaya, achhe se ragadaya. I used to hit him with a stick all the time, bahut maar khaya woh. Now he’s the best defender in the world.”
In Iran’s current line-up, only Mighani, Atrachali and former captain Mairaj Sheykh (who didn’t make the team) are PKL regulars. Atrachali even became Iran’s only crorepati at the auction in May.
On Thursday, at the Theatre Garuda in Jakarta, he led his team to a win that wipes away memories of the previous two Asiads, where they lost to India in the final. The 2014 edition was particularly painful because of the mere two-point margin of defeat.
That result did, however, give them the confidence to go that one step further and prepare for the long run. “We started a youth programme after the Asian Games,” coach Gholamreza Mazandarani said in June.
“After these Games, we will have new players for every tournament. That’s the depth that is being built because Iran has the potential.”