The National Hockey Stadium, opposite the Qadaffi stadium in Lahore, is floating in chilly fog these days. The back gate to the stadium has two parks on both sides of the entrance and, in one of them, we see half a dozen broad-built girls (many broader than most sportsmen on screen), clad in white shirts and green pajamas, talking to TV cameras.
The girls have recently made history by forming a national Girls Kabaddi team in Pakistan, representing it in an international tournament like the Kabaddi World Cup this year and earning the fourth position in the tournament by beating Denmark and England — all for the first time. This obviously created media frenzy on both sides of the border.
The team was an impressive mix of former champions and high achieve from other sports like badminton, karate, weight lifting etc. Some were teaching physical education in schools, playing for Wapda and holding Masters Degrees as well. Others were still studying. One was an undergrad, another one continuing her MSc in Chemistry from the Punjab University.
“There were 30-40000 exhilarated people in the stadium,” said Zeebat Parveen, a stopper. “We couldn’t even hear ourselves due to the noise. And yet we were learning the rules during the match. Because of weak technique and little practice, some of our team mates got injured.” One player even had her shoulder displaced.
The Punjab Sports Board received an invite for the Kabaddi World Cup, started a camp within three days in the Punjab stadium and prepared for three weeks there. Their head coach was the former Kabaddi player Ghulam Abbass Butt from Faisalabad, lovingly known as the ‘Prince of Kabaddi’.
Trials were repeated every four days. Their progress was constantly being monitored by the Punjab Board and World Cup officials from India. The team practised for 16 hours every day in the camp and continued their regular gym training, in their new shoes and kits sponsored by The University of Lahore.
The team played tournaments in several cities of the Indian Punjab, including Ludhiana, Bathinda, Mansa and Jallander. They played five matches, defeating the Mexican and English teams. Those teams had been trained by Sikh coaches and had won medals in previous matches.
The team members say they came under pressure because of the crowd, which gave ecstatic support to any team playing against Pakistan. However, as they won the matches, their fanfare also increased and people wanted to take their autographs/interviews. They were impressed by the Indian hospitality and the teams’ tight security. And after they had won the matches, the crowd greeted them with clapping and cheers.
The star of the series was Pakistan’s captain Madiha Latif. She was the top scorer in the World Cup was and offered a position in the Canadian county. “We need to keep Kabaddi away from federations and maintain the Punjab Board’s control,” said Latif. “The federations are clandestine about their funds, eat up the players’ fee and enjoy foreign tours. They fight among themselves and the players suffer. Just now our swimming team was not allowed to play abroad and even the Olympic Association has warned us against the federation politics in every sport or we will be banned.”
The team will be given 17-18 lakh rupees, as participatory fee and is very content with the financial transparency of the Punjab Board. They said they didn’t even know about the fee till the management told them.
The team objected that the referees were not very fair, didn’t give the Pakistani team any benefit of doubt or points for double touch. The last match was finished 22 seconds earlier. Surprisingly, all the referees were Indian.
The team also complained that throughout the tournament, it was announced that the highest scorer will get the Best Player and Best Leader award, but eventually the winner was selected from the final match and it was an Indian. Otherwise Pakistan’s captain could have bagged the prize.
“The World Cup referees were indeed not qualified,” said Santop Singh Mandel, the international co-ordinator for the Kabaddi World Cup. “We need referees from other countries, who should be nominated and given fresh-up courses under the international rules. Some of the decisions were problematic as the referees were from school and local tournaments.”
However, he added the best player and leader award always went to players in the final and semi-final matches.
The girls (also the boys’ team) were given psychological training as well. This was meant to boost their confidence, motivation, assertive power, decisiveness, initiation and ability to cope with any situation. The group therapy was to help their mind and willpower dominate their physical strength.
“I had to work much harder with boys than with girls,” says counsellor Ayesha Amir. “The boys were under much more pressure. But when I looked at these players performing, I saw a remarkable difference in their body language and confidence levels. Now we also have to work with the injured players who are overstressed.”
On losing this year, last year’s bronze medalist team England accused the Pakistani team of having three transgenders instead of girls. Last year, England accused that the Malaysian team comprised Indian Punjabis and succeeded in getting the runner-ups disqualified. However, this year their complaint was not entertained because the team didn’t mention the names of the accused players.
The Education Minister Sikander Singh Maluka and President of the Punjab Kabaddi Association said that since the girls’ passports said they were females, they didn’t need further verification. It seems very unlikely that someone could fake their gender on computerised passports, ID cards and also get away at the Indian High Commission’s visa scrutiny.
The Punjab government of Pakistan has promised to introduce the sport at school, college and university level. A Kabaddi Academy has also been planned. Kinnaird College, University of Lahore and Punjab University have shown interest in sending their women students for Kabaddi training. Furthermore, there are talks of an Indian Kabaddi IPL — which could become a dream launch pad for these young players.
The 5th World Cup will be hosted in both the Punjabs. This could revive Kabaddi in Pakistan, bring commercial support to the game and become a thread to maintain peace in the region. The girls were also appreciated by the Indian media.
The Pakistani male and female teams’ discipline is said to be impeccable. The team mates were also on guard, stayed at a distance from their rivals and any potential controversies.
“The Pakistan girls team’s captain, Madiha Latif did very well,” said Santop Singh Mandel, International coordinator Kabaddi World Cup. He has been appointed as the Director International Affairs to assist the Pakistan Kabaddi Federation (PKF). He is also General Secretary British Columbia Kabaddi and Cultural Federation.
“The Pakistan team’s style was the best. We really wished a tractor or car could go to Pakistan. Maybe, next year.”