Gholamreza Mazandarani was a relative stranger in the world of kabaddi. But everything changed two months ago when he masterminded Iran's first ever gold medal win in kabaddi at the Asian Games. Since that heroic feat in Jakarta, the Iranian's stock has risen incredibly. He isn't just the first ever foreigner to coach in the Pro Kabaddi League, but U Mumba, under his guidance, have looked the part once again, after few seasons of mediocrity. Young, vibrant and ruthlessly efficient, the Mumbai side has been a breath of fresh air to the PKL this season, winning six out of their eight games so far.
"They are still getting used to me and my methods, you see after two months," the Iranian fired a subtle warning while trying to provide a perspective.
Gholamreza was destined to be a sportsman. Not just because he has a built of a wrestler, composure of a shooter and brain of a chess player, but simply because he doesn't love anything else more.
Born in a family of wrestlers in Gorgan, a city in northern Iran, Gholamreza's childhood was spent emulating his father and brothers in the wrestling arena. However, his endeavours at achieving sporting excellence were to take him far beyond Koshti (local Iranian wrestling).
"I played so many sports in my life. Maybe be too many." Gholamreza reminisced, giving an impression of a man slightly embarrassed about the exploits in his younger days, but as he peeked further into his past, nostalgia gripped him.
"My first sport was local wrestling. Then I took up wrestling, the Olympic style. At the same time, I also used to do judo, and then maybe a bit of football and volleyball," he continued.
It was rather strange that for a kid who grew up playing a handful of sports, the one that was going to stay with him for his life happened to him only at the age of 20.
"It was almost 22 years ago. The Iran Olympic Committee wanted to introduce sports that are not so popular in Iran to test if they can grow among the locals. That's how I was introduced to kabaddi. I tried it for four years and decided that, yes, this is my life. Since then my main focus has been kabaddi," the 42-year-old revealed.
"My first ever coach was Muhammad Salwar from Pakistan. He came to our country and taught kabaddi to all Iranians. Whatever we have achieved as a nation in kabaddi, we must thank him for that," he added.
Being among the first few locals to learn the game, Gholamreza had to fill in more boots than one. On the mat, he started out as a left corner, then moved to right corner, before shifting to the right cover position. In between the shuttles from one defensive position to another, a foray into the opponent territory for a bit of raiding was never out of question. That wasn't all.
"For me, it was very different compared to other kabaddi players as when I started as a player, at the same time I began my coaching career. I was given the responsibility to teach kabaddi to young kids in Gorgan. Fazel (Atrachali) was a young boy when he first came to me," he recalled.
Gholamreza was part of the first ever Iranian national kabaddi team in 1999, but his weight, thanks to a heavy wrestling background, didn't allow him to be a part of Iran's Asian Games squads.
"My weight was a problem. That time the weight limit for kabaddi players was 80kg, I was way over that, so I couldn't play Asian Games for Iran," Gholamreza said.
Being a kabaddi player before Pro Kabaddi was a challenging proposition for players in India. In a country like Iran, where few knew that such a sport existed, trying to make a living out of kabaddi wasn't even an option.
For Gholamreza, who couldn't even take part in the Asian Games, it was even harder, but he kept going. "In Iran, kabaddi is not a job, it's just love. The game is not commercialised like in India, so I had to do different jobs to earn my living and sustain my game," the Iranian said.
Gholamreza currently has a job in the real estate industry in Iran. He is the national team coach but his major earning comes from his job. During his initial days in kabaddi, Gholamreza used to run a bakery in Gorgan. However, the hassles of running one at the heart of the city never kept him away from kabaddi " his love.
"It's difficult to manage the job and practice sometimes, but it's my love, I find a way to do it. Financially it is harder. A lot of times, I paid from my own pocket for the team to train or play competitions, but it's okay," the Iranian said with no qualms.
Having missed out as a player, Gholamreza had the first taste of Asian Games in 2006 when he was the assistant coach of the Iranian team. After multiple stints as the number two, Gholamreza was finally handed the reigns of the national team in November 2017, just eight months before the Asian Games in Jakarta.
Iran were no underdogs by that time and had won silver medals at the 2010 and 2014 Asian Games, and the 2016 Kabaddi World Cup. However, he took up the job at a critical juncture in Iranian kabaddi.
The team's progress was under question after they lost to Pakistan in the semi-finals of the 2017 Asian Kabaddi Championship that they hosted. Problems ranging from player fitness to disharmony with the previous coach haunted the national side. Gholamreza slowly steered the team away from the troubles and took them straight to the Asian Games podium.
Though the story of Iran's turnaround after the Asian Championships debacle went slightly unnoticed, Gholamreza's role in being the catalyst to the change in their kabaddi team's fortunes cannot be overlooked.
At U Mumba, the Iranian has brought with him his own set of training regimes. Placing a high degree of importance on fitness, Gholamreza's philosophy revolves around maximizing the potential of his players by improving their fitness. Iran's Asian Games success was based on it.
"Fitness is very critical in a game like kabaddi. If you are fit, then you are able to execute your skill in the best way possible. I feel the Indian players are highly skilled, but in terms of fitness, they are not up to the mark. We have tried to get the players to their peak fitness so that we can maximise their skills," the 42-year-old said.
U Mumba's fitness will be tested in their home leg starting from Friday. A successful run at home could see them all but seal their passage through to the playoffs, an achievement that will add another feather to Gholamreza's cap.
Few people in Iran are aware what their Asian Games gold medal-winning coach is up to in India, and few would take note even if U Mumba are crowned champions. But none of it bothers Gholamreza. "I'm not here for fame or money. I am here for kabaddi, it's my love."