TRENDS – Sepak takraw and kabaddi


Two popular Asian sports set to conquer fans and the world.


The global popularity of football is easily explained: all you need is a ball and you’ve got a game. This holds true in Brazilian favelas or African cities, but not in Asia.

In Southeast Asia, from Myanmar to Indonesia, and especially in Thailand and Malaysia, the reigning sport is a cross between football, volleyball kung fu and badminton.

And it’s a popular because to play sepak takraw all you need is a ball and a net. The ball is made of woven rattan, but nowadays plastic is also accepted. It’s the size of a handball, with a 40 cm circumference and weighing 200 grams. Two three-player teams score points by kicking the ball over the net into the opponent’s pitch; the opposition tries to do the same with no more than three touches, as in volleyball.

A match is played over three sets of 21 points each You can return the ball with any part of your body except your hands. Inside kick-ups; knee, head or thigh passes; and spectacular scissor kicks and smashes while the defensive team attempt acrobatic net blocks. And you definitely need practice: Western players feel pain the first time they play with the strange, empty and seemingly bounce-less ball. 

The transnational expansion of the sport in a region teeming with patriotic pride means that its origins and even its name are highly contested After much debate, in the ’60s Thailand and Malaysia agreed upon the name sepak takraw. In Malay, sepak means “football,” while in Thai takraw(pronounced ‘takròo’) is the ball. However, no one actually uses the official name: in Malaysia it’s sepak raga, in Thailand simply takraw, in Indonesia rago, in Laos kator, and in Vietnam da cau.

Western football has a huge following in Southeast Asia, but sepak takraw is the sport everyone actually practices. In the parks of Kuala Lumpur and ghettoes of Bangkok, during workers’ breaks, under overpasses, in the Myanmar countryside: passions run high over this funny wicker-like ball.

The Thai are usually odds on favourites. In the Asian Games’ 24-year history, they’ve won 18 out of 27 gold medals, usually beating the Malaysians in the final. These bitter rivals do share a common dream: they want to see sepak takraw, or whatever you want to call it, promoted to an Olympic sport. Meanwhile, on the Indian subcontinent all you need are a few lines chalked onto the dirt to play kabaddi.

Kabaddi is simpler and more accessible than cricket and almost as popular. Played by Indian children from their earliest school days, kabaddi is a contact sport of strategy and physical endurance with a minimalist and unisex set-up: youdon’t need equipment or a ball, and boys and girls play according to the same rules.

All you need is an imaginary rectangle divided down the middle, one side for each team. Points are scored by sending an attacking ‘raider’ into the opposite court to tag one or more members of the other team before returning to his or her side. Sounds easy. But try and do it in one single – exhaled – breath, as you repeatedly chant “kabaddi” while in enemy territory and attempt to make it back to home court without being tackled by the entire rival team.

Professional male players on average hold their breath for 30 seconds; women for 18. When you see kids playing kabaddi, it resembles a sweet version of tag, but put seven beefy Punjabis per team on a field in the Punjab plains and you will behold an incredible display of physical strength and agility.

Kabaddi is one of the few traditional Indian sports that has survived globalisation and enjoys enormous popularity in Punjab, Tamil Nadu and Bengal. In Bangladesh, it’s a national sport.

It is a rural game and essentially a ‘poor man’s game’, usually played barefoot on unplowed fields that have been cleared of rocks and roots. Much more so than cricket, the colonizer’s game in which the colonized now excel, kabaddi represents India’s traditional identity and celebrates its proletarian origins.

Almost all the professional players on the Indian national kabaddi team share humble peasant origins. From 2000 onwards, the efforts to get the sport televised and the spectacularisation of matches required to convince sponsors has also affected kabaddi. International competitions – at which the entire subcontinent participates, along with Japan, China, Iran, Malaysia and the countries of the Indian diaspora (Great Britain, Germany, Canada and the US) – are now broadcast on live TV, and have quite a following.

Televised games are played indoors on courts covered with rubber matting, fully decked out in uniforms, down to the shoes. All compromises accepted in order to embrace globalisation and hopefully not die on the subcontinent.