PKL 9: How Fazel Atrachali's inspiring leadership helped Puneri Paltan seal spot in final

"Fazel perfectly executes the role of a captain." Shyam Vasudevan | ESPN

Fazel Atrachali is a name that's synonymous with the Pro Kabaddi League. He is the league's most successful captain, has the most tackle points, has won the trophy twice and is the best overseas player PKL has seen....the list goes on.

And on Thursday, he led Puneri Paltan to their first-ever final. Yet another achievement in his stellar career, but this one's been a different ride. Puneri Paltan has the youngest squad in PKL 9, an average age of 22, and Fazel, at 30, is the oldest among the lot.

It meant that he's had to tweak his role from a menacing left corner defender to a slightly sober version of himself, to ensure that he can spend all 40 minutes on the mat and marshal his troops.

"This is like a lot of work for me. All the time I should think about them and give them a plan. I'm not free and cannot play my game but it is good because the players are successful. It's hard, but I am enjoying it," he tells ESPN.

Fazel doesn't have a moment to catch his breath when he's on the mat. He chooses which raider to use depending on the match situation, then whispers a strategy into the raider's ear seconds before he crosses the midline and then races back to his defence to strategise their next tackle.

But what makes it look easy is the relative calmness with which he goes about it. He always has a calming smile on his face, waiting to engulf his players with bear hugs and back-pats. You make a mistake? That's okay, Fazel will still greet you with a smile.

There's zero negativity when he's around, and that's what sets this team apart. They celebrate their wins together, but don't turn on each other when they lose. And that precedent has been set at the very top.

"If I yell at them, will the point come back? If I yell or get angry with them then I will take away their confidence. I've been captain for the last 15 years and I've learnt that I should always support players. It always works. When you support them, they deliver next time and do better," he says with a disarming smile.

He adds, "If they are not playing well, then I am nothing here."

He goes out of his way to ensure each player is in good spirits - he gives them all an enormous hug moments before the game starts - and listens to each one of them. Even the younger players.

"This is how a captain should play," coach BC Ramesh says. "Fazel perfectly executes the role of a captain. Who to send to raid, how to control the momentum, he's been doing all of these roles very well."

Fazel says he enjoys his role not only because he's got a good bunch of players, but also because "their personality is good".

"There is something special in this team. It so happens with a lot of players, especially young players that their personality changes when they play well. They think they're heroes. But this is a nice fact that I have never seen something like this from the youngsters in our team," he says while naming the likes of Mohit Goyat, Aslam Inamdar, Akash Shinde and Pankaj Mohite.

"Their personality is very good, I like it. They play for the team and not for themselves."

Fazel wants to give his players a support system that he lacked growing up. A win away from a third PKL title, he looks back at how far he has come. "My journey was very difficult. How do I tell you?"

He was shooed away from kabaddi to weightlifting when he was 11. When he joined the junior kabaddi team years later, they shipped him to the senior team. "When I went to the senior team, they said you are very young and not good enough. I was 18 then.

"When I turned 20 and made it to the 2010 Asian Games team, they said I was not a good player. But I played the Games and captained the team. Before the 2016 World Cup, they said you are finished and that others are better, but I played. In 2018, they said Fazel is over, but I won a gold medal at the Asian Games.

Fazel Atrachali becomes Pro Kabaddi League's most successful defender

"When I learnt that now, at 30, I have the most tackle points and most wins as captain in PKL, it took me back to when I was 11 no one believed in me. When you are successful in your sport a lot of people want to pull you down. But it's good that I fought them and have come this far."

He's grateful for how PKL has shaped his career. "I am more famous in India than I am back home in Iran. When I tell my friends in Iran that I am like this, famous in India and that people cheer me, they don't believe me. I show them videos and how popular kabaddi is in India (to convince them)."

It's not just talk. Ahead of the game against Telugu Titans on November 27, Fazel made his way to the mat for the pre-match TV show. This was an hour before the game was to begin and some 15 fans had already taken their seats and were screaming Fazel's name. As he finished his interview and walked back, he took the time out to oblige to each of their selfie requests, even though his chaperones said he didn't need to. He stretched out his palm to say "relax, I got this" and indulged in a round of selfies and handshakes.

This love is something he evidently holds and perhaps is a motivating factor to remain associated with the PKL in the long run. Fazel's keen to build on his legacy at PKL and make a switch to coaching in the future.

"If there will be a chance for me to be a coach in PKL, then yes I want to be a coach. I am already coaching, not full-time, some players like U Mumba's Heiderali Ekrami. Maybe in the future if I have a chance...but only after I finish playing because I am enjoying my playing now."