Fazel Atrachali became the arch-villain for Indian kabaddi fans last year when he led his team Iran to an upset victory over favourites India in the semi-final of Asian Games kabaddi event. After winning the gold in Jakarta, Fazel is now leading U Mumba in Pro Kabaddi League season 7.
In an exclusive interview with International Business Times, India, the veteran defender discusses the repercussions of the Asian Games victory, challenges of leadership and the future of kabaddi in Iran.
Last year, the Iranian team led by you won the Asian Games gold. The semi-final against India was quite a tense match where tempers flared on both sides. Are the players from the two countries back on good terms?
Fazel: Well, that was only a 40-minutes match. During the game, sometimes, we may have fights. For instance, when the raider goes for a kick and accidently hits the defender. But this is just a match. We are professionals and we understand that this is the sport of kabaddi and we are just doing our job. We must do our job. Outside of the match, we are very friendly.
After Asian Games match also, when some Indian players were crying and the team was very upset, I went to them and I told them not to be too sad as winning and losing happens in Kabaddi. It's okay. In Asian Games, we were friends with each other. People might have been angry with us but not players.
On the mat, there was some discontent with referee's decisions...
Fazel: No, this is okay. This is something that happens in Pro Kabaddi also.
What was the reaction in Iran after that victory of yours? Did you get a lot of coverage in the media?
Fazel: Yes. When you win a gold medal, your sport becomes more famous in the country. My people were very happy that we have won the gold. Since that time, kabaddi has become more famous. Now, a lot more youngsters are taking to kabaddi because of that achievement of ours.
As a captain in PKL, do you sometimes face difficulty in communicating with players of your team due to the language barrier?
Fazel: No, because here in India, players from different regions have difficulty in communicating with each other as well. Often, they cannot talk to each other because someone may be from Tamil Nadu, someone from Haryana, someone may be a speaker of Marathi language, someone else of Telugu.
They cannot talk to each other. So, I am one of them. During the match, it is easy to communicate because there are a lot of words which are there in both Hindi and Persian. For example, nazdeek (near), door (far), jaldi nahi (don't hurry) and other such. Also, I know a little Hindi and I talk to them like this.
How much Hindi have you learned by now?
Fazel: I have been playing here for 5-6 years and I know that a lot of words of Hindi and Irani are the same.
In your matches, you often tell your raiders what to do before they go into the opposition half. Is this something you have been doing for a long time?
Fazel: Yes, this is my responsibility as I am the captain and I should tell them what the plan is. For example, I tell them "Come back. Just spend 30 second in the opposition half and come back." Sometimes, I am looking at the defenders on the other side and I see that a certain player, say, the left cover, is not good enough. So, I tell them to go on the left side.
Sometimes, the left corner is out, so, again I tell them to go to the left side and try that. That's how it is. Because with new and young players, I feel I should advise them. When you have a senior raider like Anup Kumar, you don't need to tell him what to do. But with young players, you should tell guide them.
When it comes to team strategy, is it fully made before the match or is it changed in the course of it as well?
Fazel: Before the match, I ask the coach whatever I need to. But during the game, you cannot ask the coach all the time. So, you should quickly look at the opposition and prepare your plan. You don't have the time. Because when you are sending the raider, you have only five seconds. And you should tell him in 2-3 seconds what you are thinking and what needs to be told.
Has it ever happened to you that you said something to the raider but he didn't do what you wanted?
Fazel: It happens in every match. Because during the game, they get confused as there is a lot of pressure on them. There is a lot of pressure on me also. But for me, it is normal since I have been here for 6-7 years.
And when this happens, do you get angry with your players?
Fazel: No. I don't like getting angry. I don't think you will see me getting angry. If we lose a point, I say no problem, try again.
In 2017 you were playing for Gujarat Fortunegiants and had your Iranian teammate Abozar Meghani as your partner in defence. Has not having him by your side affected your performance?
Fazel: No, because at that time, my performance was not good. I was in the top-10 defenders list but my performance wasn't not good. Apart from that season, I scored 60 odd points in one of the past six seasons, last year, I had 83 points.
In season four, I was the best defender. In season 3, I was among the top-3 defenders. So, I don't need him. I play well with everyone. Currently, it's Sandeep Narwal. Again, I am in top-4 defenders. So, I don't have a problem.
Since winning the Asian Games gold medal, do you think every match for Iran against India is more intense?
Fazel: Yes and this is normal. Because it was very disappointing for India that they lost. They should try to win the next match.
I think in future, everything should be changed. If in future, Iran team plays under a coach like the one Telugu Titans have – Gholamreza Mazandarani – then they have a chance to beat India again. But if they change the coach, I am telling you now, they have only 1% chance to win. That's because coach is very important.
Everything can change in future. In India, they will like to prove that they can beat Iran. Also, some players of Iran won't play again.
When you went back to Iran, were you instantly recognised on the streets and other public places and approached for autographs and selfies?
Fazel: Yes, it was especially so in my city as kabaddi is popular there. Even before the gold medal, it was like this. After we won the gold, the craze became even more. When I reached my city, we also had a special celebration.
With more and more Iranians playing in PKL, do you see more youngsters in your country taking to this sport?
Fazel: I am not sure the situation is that good because young Iranian players are not coming to PKL. Only old players are coming to PKL. That is not very good.
So, you want youngsters from your country to come here as well?
Fazel: Well, at the moment, there are a few players from Iran but only 2-3 of them are young. The rest are all old. So, this is not very helpful for Iran. If there is a player who is in his 30s, he can't help the national team very much in the future.
If a player comes here when he is just 18-19 years old and plays a couple of seasons in PKL, he can help the national team. But there are some players who are already quite old. They are older than me (chuckles).