The 12-nation Kabaddi World Cup begins this week in India, with a row over a decision to bar archrivals Pakistan from competing threatening to overshadow the tag-wrestling sport’s showcase event.
Formidable Iran clash with newcomers the US in tomorrow’s opening round of the competition, which also includes top sides from Australia, South Korea, England, Poland, Kenya and Argentina.
With the World Cup last staged nine years ago, teams are relishing the chance to compete in the two-week event being held in India’s western city of Ahmedabad.
The traditional South Asian sport that mixes tag and wrestling and is growing in popularity has been hit with controversy over a decision to exclude highly fancied Pakistan.
International Kabaddi Federation (IKF) head Deoraj Chaturvedi, who is from India, said Pakistan were denied entry because of a spike in tensions between the two nuclear-armed nations.
“This is not the right time to engage with Pakistan,” Chaturvedi told reporters. “Pakistan is a valuable member of the IKF, but looking at the current scenario and in the best interest of both the nations, we decided that Pakistan must be refrained from the championship.”
Pakistan accused the IKF of unfairly targeting the country, saying both rival nations should have been excluded if there were security concerns.
“We have called a meeting to discuss this issue, but let me tell you that a Kabaddi World Cup is no world cup without Pakistan,” Pakistan Kabaddi Federation secretary Rana Muhammad Sarwar said. “This is just like a [FIFA] football world cup without Brazil.”
Pakistan captain Nasir Ali said his players had been favorites to clinch the Cup after defeating India at the six-nation Kabaddi Cup in Pakistan in May and last month’s Asian Beach Games in Vietnam.
“We were hoping to win the World Cup in India by beating India,” Ali told reporters, adding that fans were being denied matches between the top two sides.
Hostilities between the nations have flared after India said last week it conducted military strikes inside Pakistan against militants, sparking fury from Islamabad.
The strikes came after gunmen staged the deadliest attack on an Indian army base in more than a decade, which an enraged New Delhi blamed on Pakistani-based militants.
The World Cup comes as the ancient game, played in sandy parks across India for generations and once tagged with a dowdy image, is enjoying a new lease of life.
Kabaddi requires yoga-like breathing skills as two seven-member teams send a raider into their enemy’s half of the court to tag an opponent before returning — in just one breath.
Attackers chant “kabaddi, kabaddi” to prove they are not inhaling.
The game is played in about 35 countries, but it is dominated by India, where it originated.
Iran, who lost to India in the previous two World Cup finals in 2007 and 2004, have a relatively easy first match against first-timers the US.
An opening-day double header also sees India lock horns with South Korea.
A round-robin tournament, the top two sides from the pools qualify for the semis, with the final on Oct. 22.
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