BY SAIKAT CHAKROBARTY
Every once in a while, there comes a footballing fairytale which makes us believe in the impossible; like Leicester City’s Premier League winning campaign in 2015/16, Porto’s Champions League win in 2004 or even Greece’s surprising European Championship glory in 2004. But very seldom is there a story which not only inspires for its footballing aspects, but also for making its mark in the geopolitical sphere. The story of Real Kashmir FC is one such tale which re-announces the power of the beautiful game.
The Indian-administered region of Kashmir is widely regarded as “heaven on earth” for its picturesque landscape dotted with magnificent valleys, beautiful lakes and rivers surrounded by the magnificent Himalayan ranges.
Kashmir is also the reason for an active territorial conflict primarily between Indian and Pakistan and has witnessed three major wars between the neighbours, and another limited war between India and China, since 1947. More than 1.5million lives have been lost in the Kashmir conflict since it began.
Amid all this, football found its feet in the beautiful valley and became the major sport of the region, but then came the insurgency in early 1990s, and football was among the many casualties. Kashmir became one of the world’s most militarized zones.
Although the history of football in Kashmir dates back to the last decades of the 19th century, when Cecil Tyndale-Biscoe – the founder of the Srinagar missionary school – introduced the sport to the region, it is said that when Biscoe first demonstrated the game at Central Mission High School in Fateh Kadal, the students refused to play the game; the ball was made of leather — a material Brahmins (higher caste people in Hinduism from which the likes of priests and teachers are drawn) were forbidden to touch.
Despite the initial hesitation, the sport soon caught on and by the 1980s, Kashmir had a vibrant local football culture. Corporate trophies where local teams played generated good crowds. Several players from the region went on to represent India.
However, in the last few years, football in the valley has grown significantly as people have started to reconnect with the beautiful game and their local clubs once again. They have found solace in football amid the ongoing strikes, curfews, armed conflicts and heavy military patrolling.
One of the main reasons for this blossoming football culture is Real Kashmir Football Club, an Indian professional team based in Srinagar, the capital of Jammu & Kashmir. Their fascinating journey from bloody summer curfews to a snow-covered half season, has already become the stuff of legend in India.
The seeds of Real Kashmir FC were sown in 2014, when two friends – Shamim Meraj, the owner and editor of a local newspaper Kashmir Monitor and Sandeep Chatto, a hotelier – were looking for places to keep youngsters entertained through football after a devastating flood hit the region.
The club took formal shape in March 2016. Four months later it was selected to represent the state in the prestigious 128th Durand Cup during a massive civilian uprising following the murder of the rebel commander, Burhan Wani.
The team went to Delhi with a ragtag bunch of players which consisted of mostly semi-professional locals. They played against prominent clubs likes Aizawl FC, Neroca FC and Dempo SC and predictably ended up last. They scored four goals in five matches and conceded 14.
“We had no idea what goes into playing at that level. We were not prepared financially or football wise,” said club president Meraj.
As the club turned their attention to the I-League 2nd division, the 2nd tier of the Indian national league, they started to compile a squad able compete in the competition.
In their first season in the I-League Second Division, Real Kashmir FC finished third in their group and narrowly missed out on a place in the final round.
This was a humbling experience for the club as they learnt that it would take more than just one season and a lot more financial support to build themselves up to a level where they could truly become a force. They also identified that in order to make a mark in the division, they needed proper guidance.
At the start of the season, they appointed ex-Rangers, Aberdeen, Leeds United and Montrose player David Robertson as their manager. The former Scotland international had also managed at Elgin City, Montrose and Phoenix FC.
However, luring the Scot to Kashmir wasn’t as easy as it sounds. After visiting the club, Robertson initially declined the job, citing security reasons as well as the lack of infrastructure. At that time Real Kashmir didn’t even have a permanent practice space. However, he was eventually convinced by the project and thus begun the remarkable journey of Real Kashmir.
Champions of Division II
In only their second season, the team from Kashmir achieved a remarkable feat by earning promotion to the top-tier; winning the tournament without losing a single match.
The introduction of two new foreign players – defender Loveday Enyinnaya, and forward Yao Kouassi Bernard – injected much needed experience into the squad.
Local boys Muhammad Hammad, Danish Farooq and Ritwik Kumar Das were also crucial in the team’s title hunt. Midfielders Danish and Ritwik were on the top scorers’ list, while Hammad – partnered with Loveday and Abhash Thapa – created the most vigorous defence in the tournament.
They emerged from their group as winners with 6 wins in 10 matches and advanced to the final round. In the 3-match final league, they started off with 3-2 win over Ozone FC before a 2-2 draw against TRAU FC in the second match.
The title race continued till the last match of the tournament between Real Kashmir FC and Hindustan FC as both needed a win.
On May 30, 2018, Robertson’s boys defeated Hindustan FC 3-2, courtesy a late goal from talisman Danish Farooq. The Snow Leopards (the official nickname of the club) became the first team from Kashmir to reach the I-League (top-tier of Indian football).
With no assistance from the AIFF or the state government, both financial and infrastructural limitations have been a part of their journey. The club had to rely on quiet support from well-wishers and crowdfunding schemes.
The many amateur and semi-professional footballers at the club work as daily wage labourers. During curfews, they must get through checkpoints before they can get to practice. During shutdowns, they missed their games altogether. The one available stadium in their home state is shared by other teams too, so some practice sessions took place in neighbourhood parks that have no goalposts, or even grass. Apart from that they also have to fight against the harsh weather that sweeps down from the mountains.
The promotion brought some much-needed attention to the club as they started preparing for the 2018-19 I-League season. New additions have definitely improved their squad depth. Several new foreign players were signed along with Indian talents. The likes of Aaron Katebe, Ghohere Krizo, Bazie Armand and Mason Robertson – the son of the manager – signed for the club.
Life among the elite
On October 31, 2018, Real Kashmir FC played their first ever I-League match at Tau Devi Lal Stadium in Gurgaon – they defeated defending champions Minerva Punjab FC on their own turf.
Two weeks later, an I-league match was played between Real Kashmir FC and Churchill Brothers at the TRC Turf Ground in Srinagar. It was the first ever top-tier football match in the valley.
Real Kashmir FC started their campaign pretty well, not looking out of place in the top flight. The newly promoted side currently sits in second spot in the league table with 14 points from 8 matches. The team from the valley has created a buzz for football, not only in Kashmir but in the entire country with their brilliant performances.
Though it is too early to get carried away as the league gets tougher in the later phase, one cannot deny that Real Kashmir have been successful in capturing the imagination of all football lovers in the country.
The second decade of the 21st century has seen a new dawn for football in the Valley. The contribution of Real Kashmir FC to reviving football culture in the region cannot be stressed enough. The TRC Turf Ground of Srinagar has become a platform for the people of the region to showcase the real Kashmir amid all the violence and adversities.
FOLLOW SAIKAT ON TWITTER @iamsaikatc