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Iranian women aim high in combative sport kabaddi

Abdollahbakhsh and her teammates present a rather paradoxical sight as they compete in a sport that involves running and grappling

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Iran captain Salimeh Abdollahbakhsh visited the hospital on the eve of the kabaddi final at the Asian Games. She had fever and felt dreadful. She had no intention of missing the kabaddi title match, though, knowing her skills could tilt the match in favor of her team and against India, the creator and dominant nation in the sport.

So she lined up along with her teammates - all in their hijabs - as they prepared to give India a run for its money in a combative sport that combines tag with wrestling.

In the end, India won the final 31-21, but Iran showed glimpses of its potential and is growing in confidence for the next Asian Games.

“India is, of course, a good team but Iran is improving fast,” Abdollahbakhsh said. “Iran could have done better in the final and I thought we had a chance of upsetting India. We won the bronze last time and silver here. We’re aiming for gold next time.”

Abdollahbakhsh and her teammates present a rather paradoxical sight as they compete in a sport that involves running and grappling with opponents, covered from head to toe and with full-length sleeves.

But in contrast to games in which head covering are banned - like the hijabs were here in the women’s basketball competition - officials in kabaddi take great care to ensure the faith and customs of the athletes is respected. Often, the umpires have to move quickly to block spectators’ views with their blazers if a player’s head covering is displaced.

“We come from a conservative society and are used to playing (in) the way we dress, so that’s not a problem. Our aim is to gain maximum exposure and play a team like India more often so that we can improve our skills,” said 29-year-old Abdollahbakhsh, a member of the team that played in the inaugural women’s competition at the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou, China.

Coach Azam Maghsodlou said a series with India could not be organized ahead of the games, but Iran had prepared well anyway.

“We had camps spread over nine months in preparation,” Maghsodlou said.

“There were exposure tours to Thailand and South Korea and that helped the team get together and gel. We also have a growing pool of players.”

Iran has some 100 kabaddi clubs for both men and women, with many in its northeastern province of Golestan. The game has gained in popularity over the past decade but can’t be compared with the likes of football or volleyball in terms of popularity.

“People follow kabaddi since we are doing well at the Asian Games, but it still has a long way to go,” Maghsodlou said. “One has to remember the fact that India has been playing it for hundreds of years.”

That’s a fact India’s head coach Edachery Bhaskaran knows all too well, so his praise for the Iranian team was genuine.

“They have strength and stamina but we are better in skills and technique,” Bhaskaran said. “I understood midway through the tournament that Iran was the team to watch and so we studied a lot of their videos and made plans for particular players.”

The basic rules of kabaddi are simple, but the finer arts of the game have taken centuries to develop. It is a game between two teams of seven players each. The teams take turns to send a raider into the rival half of the field to gain points by trying to touch opponents, who then go out of the game. All the while, the raider chants the word ‘kabaddi’ until running out of breath.

The opposite team tries to either evade the touch or gets into a grapple to try to stop the raider returning to their own half.

Despite the visible improvement from the Iranian team, Indian player Abhilasha Matre remains convinced that her country’s larger player base will keep it ahead of the competition.

“They’re an improving side but I’m sure even a second-string Indian side will be able to beat Iran,” she said.