Can you image kabaddi without Fazel Atrachali? Puneri Paltan’s imperious skipper and defender, a mainstay in the sport in his home country Iran, might not have set foot on a kabaddi mat if his earlier plans had been brought to fruition.
“I wanted to be a fireman,” the Iranian says, surprised when prodded about the risks of the job.
“I wanted the job because of the risk! What is the point of waking up, exercising, eating food and sleeping? What kind of life is that? We have to make something of ourselves right,” he adds.
“I got a lot of job offers from many companies. But I do not want to sit at a desk from 9-5 and talk to people. 30 years of your life will go off like that. I didn’t want that. I wanted a job where life would be interesting and where I could have some fun. Being a fireman is not fun but at least you’re doing something instead of sitting somewhere with a pen between your fingers.”
Too many exams drew him away from firefighting but the itch to do something spectacular saw him go from strength to strength in the world of kabaddi. With Iran, he has three Asian Games medals (two silvers and a gold) and a silver at the 2016 World Cup. The star defender also managed to find a place in the hearts of fans in India as the ‘Sultan’ as he terrorised raiders in the Pro Kabaddi League since his arrival on the scene in 2015. As it stands, he has two Pro Kabaddi titles to his name - one with U Mumba in season 2 and the second with Patna Pirates in season 4.
With the Paltan, he has been front and centre of an impressive campaign that’s carried the side to the final of the ninth edition. He’s one step away from his first title as the captain of a franchise. But there is a sense of unfulfillment when he talks about these achievements.
Anger and disappointment
“I am very upset because this was my time. After the 2018 Asian Games, we didn’t have any tournament. 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022 and now 2023. In this time, my life itself is finished,” Fazel tells Sportstar.
“I was captain of Iran. From these five years, I should have had at least two or three medals and this makes me very angry, the fact that we didn’t have any tournament really upsets me. We practised a lot for the Asian Games. We had a camp for months and then it ended up being postponed. This doesn’t just affect us. Even people like Pawan Sehrawat - for the last three years, he is the best raider from the India but he does not have World Cup or Asian Games medals to show for it. That’s what people will remember at the end of it. Thank god, Pro Kabaddi is still on, because the sport remains in people’s mind. After PKL though, we don’t have anything to support Kabaddi,” he says.
It all comes down to legacy. What will people remember Fazel Atrachali for?
“After a few years, I might have to stop playing Kabaddi. I feel like I’ve missed out on so much, on so many medals. We are stars here in PKL but that’s a different thing. Take BC Ramesh for example. People say BC Ramesh is a two-time Asian Games gold medal. That becomes your identity in this sport. I am thinking about Kabaddi in the world. In the last 2-3 years if we had tournaments, we would have had more countries from Europe or more from Asia join Kabaddi. Poland had kabaddi before, Pakistan and Korea also - what’s the motivation to keep going?” he asks.
PKL 9 has come with a number of milestones for Fazel. He broke the 400 tackle points ceiling and became the league’s most successful defender. He also overtook former Paltan coach Anup Kumar as the most successful captain in PKL history (58 wins). However, the highlight has been the rise of Fazel the tactician. He has the responsibility of thinking about not just his game, but the plans for all seven on the mat, a role that has eaten into his perniciousness as a defender more often than not.
“We’re constantly looking at strategies, analysing our own strengths, working out areas to strike the opponent. If I was not captain, I would give a high five in every game. But I have to stay on the mat and control my boys and the play. Social media can criticise but no one understands my role and what comes with it,” he explains.
Fazel the coach? Is this all priming Fazel to go the coaching way when his time on the mat is done?
“If I will have a chance in PKL, I will coach. I don’t want to coach in Iran or anywhere else because I want to stay in the scheme of things in the most competitive platform available.”
Towards that end, Fazel has been taking baby steps, mentoring individual players here and there. A beneficiary of this effort is Heidarali Ekrami who made his PKL debut this season with U Mumba. In 12 games, Ekrami has 32 raid points and two tackle points to his name and has shown glimpses of being a presence to contend with in raiding, a healthy sign for Iran as it works towards the Asian Games.
“Heidarli is from my village. We practise with each other and I am happy that someone who I helped is here”
A defender teaching a raider how to master his craft is an interesting pairing, but one that Fazel believes has been mutually beneficial.
“A defender can be a very good coach for a raider because we know the weakness of the defense. I know what part of a raider’s game will be difficult for me. Raiders picking bonuses under me is hard for me so I tell him accordingly, raid like this. We both learn from each other,” Fazel explains.
Iran has consistently produced ace defenders who have taken the PKL by storm, the latest in that illustrious legacy being Patna Pirates’ Mohammadreza Chiyaneh Shadloui who finished among the top two in the defenders’ tally in both seasons he has featured in.
But how does the nation better its raiding stockpile?
“Iranian raiders are also good, it’s just that the Indian raiders are better. They shine better, every match they have super 10s. So Iranians can’t shine so much. The lack of tournaments also is one factor. Kabaddi has gone down and affected the kind of new players who come through the ranks. There are no competitions or money,” he adds.
Come December 17, all of this will take a backseat as Fazel hopes to top a great season with a maiden crown for Puneri Paltan. Fazel has been the wind beneath the sails of a young and ambitious Paltan side and will hope to keep the momentum going when they face Jaipur Pink Panthers (table toppers in the league stage) in the final.
“It will be my best season if I lay hands on that trophy,” he says.
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