Kabaddi Masters Dubai 2018: Argentina - How the struggling 'other Albiceleste' enthralled fans
"Mujhe woh mulk pasand hai, jo pure time naachte rehte hai. Unko parwah nahi ki woh haare ki nahi. Woh log har waqt khush rehte hain (I love the team that's always dancing. It doesn't matter that they lost all their matches. They're always happy)."
Nassir, who hails from Peshawar, Pakistan, and plies his trade as a bus driver in Dubai may not know of the nation called Argentina, but the kabaddi team from the South American continent certainly seems to have left an impression on him.
In fact, the Argentina team, that did not have many of their own fans in the stands at the Al Wasl Sports Club, where they participated in the Kabaddi Masters tournament against some of the best teams in the world, won a number of hearts in the Middle East with their gestures.
A massive testament to that is the fact that the local crowd, perhaps not knowing some of the more traditional Albiceleste slogans, intermittently chanted the only Argentina-related slogan that they knew -- " Messi! Messi! Messi!"
From football to kabaddi: A tale of the Goliaths and the Davids
When an Argentina kabaddi team plays during the FIFA World Cup, fans around are bound to draw the most obvious connection. One similarity between the two Argentinian sides is that both have had disappointing results.
While they were held 1-1 by minnows Iceland and lost 0-3 against a strong Croatian outfit, the Albiceleste got a late get-out-of-jail card, courtesy a Marcos Rojo strike in their last group stage game against Nigeria. That 2-1 win helped Lionel Messi and co. book themselves a spot in the Round of 16, where they are set to face stiff opposition against France.
On the other hand, the Argentina kabaddi team have had to experience disappointing results in all their four group stage matches, losing twice each at the hands of South Korea and a second string Iran side. In fact, they suffered the biggest defeats of the tournaments, a 16-72 drubbing at the hands of the Koreans.
Despite these results, the Argentinians have been upbeat. "Football is numero uno back in my country," says Gabriel Sacchi, who plays as the left corner for Argentina. "People have a lot of expectations from the football team, especially at the World Cup. But kabaddi is a new sport for us. So even these big defeats are a learning experience for us."
Despite the massive gulf in support for kabaddi, the fact that the South American nation has actually made it to the Kabaddi Masters to play some of the top teams in the world, is in itself a big achievement for them.
"When the football team loses, people back home get hurt, because the sport has developed a lot in the country, and people expect a lot from them," says coach Ricardo Acuna.
"But our situation is different. They know that we are a new team, that we are still developing, and that we cannot match the standards of teams like India, Pakistan, Iran, or Korea."
Sharing 'the mat'
Kabaddi has grown exponentially, ever since the mat was introduced to the sport a few years back. Since then, we have seen a spurt in viewership of kabaddi, especially in international tournaments like the World Cup, Asian Championships, Kabaddi Masters, and in domestic tournaments like the Pro Kabaddi League in India, or the Super Kabaddi League in Pakistan.
However, the problem that a country like Argentina faces is that mats need to be imported from Asian countries, which costs a lot of money. When the kabaddi team was formed a couple of years back, ahead of the 2016 World Cup, the Argentinians managed to acquire one mat to train and play their matches on.
In fact, a number of players, who had started playing the sport had to chip in, in order to afford a mat that they could play on.
Located in La Plata, this is the only mat in the country.
From training sessions to playing matches, everything that the Argentine players do, revolve around this mat. The local players have even started a domestic league, La Liga Nacional, consisting of six teams, in order to keep playing kabaddi on a regular basis and add a competitive element to it.
However, since kabaddi ranks much lower on the priority list of the Argentinians, there is no money in the sport. All the La Liga Nacional matches take place on this mat. The problem arises for certain players, who do not live close to La Plata.
"Some of our players have to travel more than 70-80 km just to train on the mat, which becomes quite difficult, especially because we all have other jobs to do as well," says Sacchi, who himself is a school teacher. "We play kabaddi because we love the sport."
Matchdays become more difficult for those who live far away, as they have to travel long hours before playing the league matches.
Amateurs in the truest sense of the word
Kabaddi has become a much more professionalized affair in countries like India or Pakistan, where there is an established league, and the players are taken care of. That was typified last month, when India raider Monu Goyat became the highest-paid non-cricket Indian athlete in any domestic league, as the Haryana Steelers snapped him up for Rs 1.51 crore.
However, the situation is quite different in Argentina. The players -- even the ones who have represented the country at the Kabaddi Masters in Dubai, or at the World Cup, two years earlier in Ahmedabad, India -- do it for the love of the game.
In a way, they can be called amateurs, who play the sport because they love it. While in modern day English, "amateur" refers to someone who pursues something on an unpaid basis, the word's roots, which lie in Latin (amatus, which means 'to love'), would arguably be more applicable to the lively bunch of Argentinians, who are fighting the odds everytime they step on to the mat.
"Most of us work from 7 in the morning till 5 in the afternoon from Monday to Friday. When we leave work, we go to the gym to train or play kabaddi," says captain Rafael 'Mencho' Acevedo, who works as a physical trainer.
"We try to train two-three times a week, but many of us don't have the money or the time. Our training sessions last only an hour and a half. It's a big difference, but with passion you can do a lot of things as well," he says.
Introduced to the sport by their fellow teammates just a couple of years back, these players have now gone on to rub shoulders with some of the best in the world, and are now ready to take their game to the next level after the International Kabaddi Federation promised them a proper kabaddi mat, one that will certainly help spread the sport in places other than La Plata as well.
The spirit that the 'other Albiceleste' have shown is something that is commendable indeed, and despite the absolute gulf in class, they have actually gone on to learn a lot from their highly-skilled opponents, as was evident from their last match against Iran.
Coach Acuna has aptly laid down the motto for the team, that acts as their backbone despite all the adversities -- "poner el pecho", which translates to "face the problem with your chest forward".