'Papa' Ashan Kumar Sangwan had a moment of truth on Monday. The South Korean kabaddi team he coaches brought an end to India's historic unbeaten run at the Asian Games. Ironically, Sangwan was the captain of the Indian men's team in 1990, the year kabaddi was introduced as a medal event at the Asian Games and India won its first gold. It was also the lone gold India won in that edition, apart from eight bronze and 14 silver medals.
"After the match they (Korean players) came up to me and said 'sorry papa'," Sangwan, a fatherly figure in the team which explains his nickname, tells ESPN. "Of course it felt good that that I could lead the team to a stunning victory but I've worn the Indian jersey all my life as a player, how could I not be sad?"
Contrasted against India's ancient beginnings and flattering pedigree in the sport, South Korea are relative newcomers. They made their first appearance at the Asian Games eight years ago and returned with a bronze. For the past four months, Sangwan has been training the team and now they're nothing like he originally found them.
"When I took charge, what I had was this small bunch of unfit boys. That's the first area we got cracking on. My sole focus after that was on specific training techniques, raids, catch, forming a chain, converting a two-point raid into a four-pointer and keeping the opponents under pressure. We saw the results in the match against India. Ek ek Indian player ko humne rok ke rakha tha (We stopped each and every Indian player). We had more number of raids and bonus points." The two points India won through a super tackle (when a raider is caught by the opponent with three or less defenders) eventually narrowed the loss margin to 24-23.
Against a star-studded Indian team which was stacked with Pro Kabaddi League's crorepati buys including Rs 1.51 crore acquistion Monu Goyat, apart from big names like Pardeep Narwal and captain Ajay Thakur, South Korea were anything but favorites. "We played a tight four-man defence and didn't give Indian players any room. They (Indian players) later came up to me and congratulated me, they know I was only doing my job."
Kabaddi isn't among the most popular sports in Korea. In a line-up led by football, golf and baseball, the Indian-origin contact sport barely gets a toehold. Sangwan is only grateful that Busan University threw its judo hall open for the team's training, offering them an upgrade from the garage that they operated out of until then.
"The university had its vacation so we could use their facility. Maybe once we win a gold here, kabaddi will have a new beginning in Korea."