Abdul Majeed Kakroo was the first football player from Kashmir to represent the national team and later becoming captain at the Nehru Cup in 1987. But the man who went on to play for two of India’s greatest football clubs, Mohan Bagan and East Bengal, started his footballing career by kicking crumpled ball of papers.

“When I was small, I used to collect papers and stuff them into polythene bag to use it as a ball.  We also didn’t have shoes then. We kept hurting our legs but we didn’t care,” Kakroo says.

Kakroo had made over 30 appearances for the national team and he has a memory of all his major ones. But nothing has transcended the memory of his 12 O’clock show in the city’s lanes.

“There were no streetlights in the city centre other than at the Palladium Cinema, Lal Chowk. So after the 12 O’clock show, we kids played there, using the Palladium Cinema and the Clock Tower as our goalposts.”

From the streets of the city, Kakroo made his way to the Road Transport Corporation (RTC) team, one of several government units big on football.

“It was very tough to get into RTC at that time. They were really a strong team. They offered me my first professional contract — with a salary of Rs 180 per month.”

Later, he played the 1980 Durand Trophy and scored 18 goals in the edition to get a call for national trials, but was rejected on the apprehension of a weak left foot. Kakroo once again drew national attention the following year with his 26 goals in Rovers Cup. However, he had to return back to Srinagar after yet another dismissal in Bangalore.

“I did not stop practicing hard. I toiled very hard and did everything possible to make it to the team,” Kakroo says. So after his eight goals in three matches in the Santosh Trophy the same year, Kakroo became a part of the Indian team and remained a constant for 10 years.

Kakroo was a player who defined a generation in Kashmir and so he took it upon himself to not let the aspiring players denied their right to play.

It was in 2008 when then Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad wanted to convert the TRC Ground into a tulip garden. Kakroo, along with other players including the brother-in-law of Ghulam Nabi, took to streets to protest against the government decision.

“I warned him that if the decision wasn’t taken back, then I would burn my South Asian Games gold medals outside the secretariat.”

The decision was retreated. TRC is now the only turf ground in the city and is the venue for the first ever I-League matches in the state.

Kakroo had to cut short his footballing career when the Kashmir conflict turned ugly in 1989. He came back from Kolkata, where he was playing and working, to be with his family during those times.

Haalat bahut kharab thi us waqt (the conditions were quite bad at that time). One was not allowed to practice. The military had detained me almost 10 times, mistaking for a militant.”

Kakroo remembers every detail of his footballing career. You name the match or time and he has a story to tell. That’s because the state was a football maniac then.

“People used to come on cycles and horses to see the matches. Minimum 50,000 people used to come to the Srinagar stadium. People climb to the stadium’s terrace and the trees it. Such was the craze for the game,” Kakroo recalls.

“There were countless grounds available for practice. Every school had their own grounds. But when the militancy rose in the Valley, the grounds were encroached upon and converted into buildings to make money. And all the young people resorted to drugs. In my time, we had at least 20 government football teams and a minimum of four players from every team was given a government job. But after 1989, everything died down,” Kakroo rues.

The Kashmir great is happy that football is slowly getting its life back in the valley through Real Kashmir but also expects from the government to not leave the other clubs without finances.

“It is good that our players are getting the exposure but then we should not ignore the other clubs in the state like Lonestar Kashmir FC that are struggling for finances.”