Pakistan Was Poised For World Cup Greatness Until A Military Conflict Got In The Way

Tensions in Kashmir kept Pakistan from competing in the first Kabaddi World Cup in nine years

Team Pakistan (green-white jersey) competes against Team India during Beach Kabaddi men's final match at the Asian Beach Games 2016 in Vietnam. (Getty Images)

On the night of October 13, Pakistan’s kabaddi national team captain, Nasir Ali, watched miserably as Korea beat Bangladesh in opening-round pool play at the Kabaddi World Cup in Ahmedabad, India. He was alone, sitting at home in his hometown of Faisalabad. Ali picked apart Korea’s flaws, musing that had Pakistan been there, they’d have easily won. Then he shut off the television and vowed to stop watching the World Cup as attentively.

Pakistan’s kabaddi team believed they were the favorites to win this year after they defeated India in September’s Asian Beach Games in Vietnam. But then they didn’t received their visas to attend the World Cup.

“I had no idea to even expect that we wouldn’t go,” Ali tells GOOD. “We were at Vietnam, looking towards the next sporting event, and then we got the news. I was so upset.”

The team’s visa denial was announced by Deoraj Chaturvedi, the chief of the International Kabaddi Federation, who claimed that this “was not the right time to engage with Pakistan.” He cited increasing tensions between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, a hotly contested zone that is administered by both countries.

The region has a long history of wars, regular skirmishes, and artillery fire across the Line of Control, the border that separates Indian Kashmir from Pakistani Kashmir. Last month, the Indian army claimed that it had carried out a “surgical strike,” killing two Pakistani soldiers as well as an unnamed number of militants across the LOC.

The raid was an apparent response to an attack by nongovernmental forces on the Indian army camp near Uri. India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, denounced the attack and began to put pressure on Pakistan to clamp down on militants. The Indian media demanded a vigorous response and India claims it delivered, crossing the LOC in an unprecedented move to carry out a strike on Pakistani soil. Pakistan, in turn, says that India’s surgical strike against Pakistan never even happened.

These rising tensions and the ensuing fear of escalation—Pakistan and India are nuclear-armed countries—have resulted in much posturing from both sides. India has banned all Pakistani artists from participating in Bollywood ventures and Pakistan has banned all Bollywood movies from playing in Pakistani theaters.

The move to bar Pakistan from attending the Kabaddi World Cup may simply be another action in response to these events. But it’s an action that has rippling consequences for Pakistan, India, and the sporting community at large.

Kabaddi is an ancient sport that originated in the Indian subcontinent. The game is similar to Red Rover, but only if you were playing Red Rover as a full-contact sport in an arena. Players have to enter the opposing team’s territory, tag an opponent, then make it back to their side in order to score a point. They have to do this without ever getting wrestled to the ground, and they can’t breathe in while doing so, chanting “kabaddi” the entire time to prove that they’re not inhaling.

As a game, it’s fairly simple and easy to follow. Unlike cricket or even international soccer, which dominates sport television in Pakistan, kabaddi wasn’t really the kind of the sport that you watched. Today, that’s changing.

The Pro Kabaddi League, based in India, launched in 2014. It’s the first ever professional league for the indigenous sport. This means that kabaddi has been transforming itself into a more sophisticated proposition: glitzier uniforms, better stadiums, and of course, televised events. The league’s first 37-day season attracted 435 million viewers—the second-most viewed sporting event in the country after the cricket Indian Premier League.

[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]These are two countries that have so much hostility, (but there are cultural exchanges. It's a shame when politics start to intrude.[/quote]

Still, national team competition reigns. When Abrar Khan, a member of the Pakistan Kabaddi team, heard that he wouldn’t be going to India for the World Cup, his first thought was to get mad.

“India and Pakistan are sworn enemies,” he tells GOOD. “Both on and off the field. I heard that they didn’t have enough security in Ahmedabad for us. And if that’s the case, then I don’t even want to go.”

Khan’s sentiment, that it was better for the Pakistani team to not attend the World Cup if security would be an issue, was echoed by Nasir, coach Badshah Gul, and raider Arsalan Ahmed. None of the players wanted to attend a competition where the host country couldn’t ensure their safety.

But Michael Kugelman, a South Asia policy expert at the Woodrow Wilson Center, argued that if India had really wanted to host Pakistan, they’d have found the security.

“It’s a shame,” Kugelman says. “It's always better to keep politics out of sport, and I think one thing that's so important about the India-Pakistan relationship. Even though these are two countries that have so much hostility, there are cultural exchanges. I think it's a shame when politics start to intrude on that goodwill.”

In the past, the IKF has encouraged Pakistan and India’s rivalry as a boon for the sport and also for diplomatic relations between the two countries—similar to cricket, which has a long history of assisting peace talks in the region.

In May, IKF President Janardan Singh Gehlot said the sport itself was free of politics. “By organizing more events like the Asian Kabaddi Cup, not only this traditional sport can be promoted further, but that gap between (people of) the two countries can also be reduced,” Gehlot said in Taxila, Pakistan, while watching the third Asian Kabaddi Cup final.

The Amateur Kabbadi Federation of India, which is the governing body of India’s national team, declined to comment for this piece as the Indian team was already playing in the World Cup.

For Pakistan’s Kabaddi team, the integrity of the entire World Cup fell apart when they heard they wouldn’t be going. “If you’re going to host a competition and you’re not going to have one of the best countries in the sport attend,” Ahmed said, “what’s the point of even having a competition?”

Ali agreed. “Whoever ends up winning, they’ll always know that they didn’t win fairly,” he said. “A huge contender in this cup wasn’t there.”

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