Fazel Atrachali, the sultan of kabaddi

From winning two back-to-back PKL titles to becoming the league’s most expensive foreign player last year, Fazel Atrachali has perhaps seen it all.

Fazel (right) in action during the Pro Kabaddi League. With tree trunks for legs and a boulder for a chest, he can take out the strongest men on the mat.   -  Special Arrangement

Fazel Atrachali has an infectious smile as he greets us at the lobby of a plush hotel in the city. He’s just finished breakfast and looks well-rested, with his hair gelled up and styled carefully. But ask him what his plans are for the day and he replies instantly, “I want to sleep!” in his thick Persian accent. Fazel loves his sleep, we’re told. When he’s not sleeping, he’s busy being the phenom he is — the best foreign kabaddi player that Pro Kabaddi League has seen since its inception.

From winning two back-to-back titles to becoming the league’s most expensive foreign player when he was signed for ₹1 crore last year, Fazel has perhaps seen it all. But the money and fortune weren’t always around. “When I came here in season two, I was signed for very little money but I did not care,” he says. And there was a much bigger concern for him — the Iranian struggled to get through to the Indian players. “I did not speak any English or Hindi. I did not even know the basics. I found it very tough to tell the coach that I also deserved a chance to play,” he recalls. The year was 2015 and Fazel was striving to make his mark with U Mumba then. But it’s been a world of change since. He now leads U Mumba and has a mammoth 285 tackle points to his name — the fourth best in the league.

His English is fluent and he’s also learned quite a few Hindi phrases like aage jaao (go ahead), koi baat nahi (don’t worry), and he’s surged into a league of his own.

“I am happy to have two titles, but it is also hard. People know you and they expect the best from you. There’s a lot of pressure. They want you to be at your best in each game and then they question you if you are not good. If you are not famous, you are more free,” he says.

“People know you and now they expect the best from you. There’s a lot of pressure. They want you to be at your best in each game,” says Fazel Atrachali.   -  Special Arrangement

The pressure’s always been on him. Having picked up the sport at the age of nine, he worked his way into the national team and has emerged as his country’s best kabaddi player since. But like most success stories, his tale too has a tryst with luck. “I was lucky because kabaddi began in my village. Had it not, then maybe I would have been a judo or a soccer player today. I chose kabaddi because it is a contact sport and a team game. As a child, I did not care about making it to the national team or playing the sport professionally, I enjoyed kabaddi. We had fun with friends. We would all tackle one player and then pile upon him and it was all fun for us,” he says with a childish grin.

If you’ve seen Fazel on the mat, you know how powerful he is. With tree trunks for legs and a boulder for a chest, he can take out the strongest men on the mat. But there was a point when his brute force was seen as a hindrance. “I was a little heavy in the junior team. The category was 65 kg and I weighed around 76 kg. They told me I could not lose my weight. They told me ‘you are not good for kabaddi’. I said I don’t care. I lost 10-11 kilograms in 10-15 days. It was not professional. I had only one mantra — don’t eat and train hard.”

In the years that have followed, Fazel enjoyed a fair share of success with the national team, but always remained in the hunt for an elusive gold medal. He finished with a silver medal in the 2010 and 2014 Asian Games and the 2016 Kabaddi World Cup, but it was his PKL team-mates, the Indian players, who went on to bag the crown on each of these occasions.

And it wasn’t easy to hear the taunts back home. “My people always asked me ‘oh, again you lost to India?’ That’s what they would always ask us. They said kabaddi was very easy and there’s only one good team and that we always lost to them.”

However, all those jibes disappeared when the Iranian team snatched the gold medal at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta and Palembang. Fazel and team handed India a sound 27-18 thrashing to end its 28-year domination of the sport and surged past South Korea in the final to bag top honours. While it was a common perception that the Iranians had the Indian players all figured out owing to PKL, Fazel says there was more than just that. “PKL did play a role but it was not just because of that. It’s not that we won just because we played in PKL. We had a national camp for nine months before the Asian Games. Nine months is like life! We trained hard each day and had a plan for every team. We showed that one player cannot change the match. We should play like a team and that’s the way to win. In the Asian Games, only Iran played like a team,” he says.

“We had to sacrifice a lot. I was not there when my daughter was born. It was very hard for my family. But when you have a gold medal, you forget all the hard things. Even now when I go back, she doesn’t recognise me sometimes. But I’ll stay at home for a while and she’ll eventually come to me,” he says with a disarming smile.

Having come to India over the last six years, he says he’s ‘a little Indian’ now and has even met all his favourite Bollywood stars. “I grew up watching dubbed Bollywood movies,” he says. And he’s now met his favourite actor Amitabh Bachchan. He recollects an instance when the actor himself invited him for a picture. “He said ‘come Fazel, let’s take a photo’ and I was taken aback. I was like he knows my name! It was a very good memory for me,” Fazel says.

While he has developed a strong liking for India, with Mumbai and Kochi being his favourite cities, Fazel can’t wait to head to the mountains once he’s back home in Gorgan. “As soon as I finish PKL, I go back home and go straight to the mountains. I have a house on the mountain and that’s for my rest time. It is on the top of a hill and when you are there, you can see everything beneath,” he says with a twinkle in his eyes. He takes a few friends along and they cook their meals, mainly consisting of kebabs on bonfires, and unwind. “The kebabs are not like the ones in India. Indian food is very spicy!” he says.

Will he host us at his mountain house? “Yeah, why not? It is very beautiful.” Right then we reckon we should, some day, visit the Sultan’s house!