Real Kashmir is currently placed at second spot in the I-League along with Churchill Brothers with, 29 points from 15 matches.
Parvaiz Ahmad Reshi, who works as a housekeeper in a hotel here, had already scheduled his timings for the day to be at the TRC Turf Ground sharp at 2 pm to see his home team Real Kashmir FC take on Chennai City FC. Such is the enthusiasm for the game in the Valley that Parvaiz was one among 10,000 other football-crazy locals who marked their presence at the TRC to root for their team braving the freezing temperature.
At 1 degree Celsius, however, this was the lowest crowd seen at all the six I-League matches played at the venue. On other weather-friendly days, an attendance of 25,000 people has also been recorded here. “Khade hone ko bhi jagah nahi hoti hai yahan (No space is left here even to stand),” a local would explain.
The state, marred by civil strife and political violence, last saw such a craze for football in the 1980s. Real Kashmir breathed back life into the game that had come to a complete standstill for almost three decades. Having come through the 2017-18 I-league 2nd Division undefeated, the three-year-old club is the first ever from the state to play in the I-League top division. Not only this, but the Snow Leopards have also placed themselves strongly in the title contention in their first League appearance.
But the club which has won hearts in the Valley was born out of a joke, says Real Kashmir FC co-owner Sandeep Chattoo. “Shamim (the other owner of the club) was a keen footballer and I was never one. After we had a devastating flood in 2014, he kept saying that let’s do something for the kids and that way we could also play sometime. It just started with a joke,” Chattoo tells The Sunday Guardian.
“We brought around 100 footballs and gave it to the kids and then after 10 days, Shamim told me that the kids have formed small clubs among themselves and are playing. So it seemed very interesting seeing the passion in the kids, and that’s how the whole idea came up.”
The duo says that business was never on their mind when they first thought of forming a club. “Which fool will think of making money out of a football club here!” Chatto says as Meraj agrees.
Since its inception in 2016, the owners had never foreseen that the club would come thus far, but after winning the I-League 2nd division, the two thought of adding something exceptional to the club. And that’s when Adidas came into the picture.
The sportswear giant is the official kit sponsor of Real Kashmir. And what makes it special is that no other football club in India—either big or small—has an association with Adidas. “Adidas believes in power to change lives through sports and Real Kashmir is doing that here. So that’s where the brand connected with us,” Chattoo says.
Real Kashmir is being coached by 50-year-old Scotsman David Robertson, a former left-back for Scottish clubs Aberdeen and Rangers. Having coached in the US for 10 years, Robertson found the idea of associating with a new club very appealing.
“I was offered a job in Uganda, China and here at the same time. I did not know much about India or Kashmir or Indian football. But what appealed to me was that this was a new club. It is not often that you get into a club that’s new and no one knows where it is going to go,” says Robertson.
However, it was not easy for him in the beginning. The intermittent power cuts, network problem and snowfall at first scared him away. “I found it difficult to start. After two days, I wanted to go home as there was no internet and it was snowing.”
“I thought everywhere in India was warm. So I absolutely did not do any homework. But the owners begged me to stay. After two-three weeks, I went home and came back. It was a bit culture shock for me in the start. But I am glad that I came back as it has been an incredible journey since then and the people have been great,” adds the coach.
Real Kashmir is currently placed at the second spot in the I-League along with Churchill Brothers with 29 points from 15 matches. After Thursday’s draw with Churchill, they have also narrowed down the gap with table-toppers Chennai (30 points from 14 matches) to just one point.
All these success have nullified the initial troubles Robertson had encountered in the Valley. “When I first came here, I saw that there is a lot of talent. But they are isolated in North India. You see all those young kids coming in the dressing room and having a dream to play for the Real Kashmir. I felt a little bit of pressure at the start as I wanted to make sure that we stay in the League. You see what it means to the people of Kashmir. I think all the power cuts and the internet and all that stuff goes in insignificance (for me) because of how good it is here.”
Football’s popularity has grown exponentially in the Valley after Real Kashmir’s accession to success. But being a footballer is not easy here, given the lack of infrastructure and violence taking place almost routinely.
TRC is the only all-weather ground in Srinagar and that too lacks a proper dressing room and requisite facilities. All the Real Kashmir teams—including Under 19, 15, 13, 9 teams—and Lonestar Kashmir RC, the other football club from the state, all practice on the same ground. Hence, availability of the ground is less to each of the teams.
Danish Farooq, the top scorer for Real Kashmir in their promotion-winning season last year and the local favourite, brings out that sports have never been the state government’s first priority. “You see we have only one turf here where we are practicing. Every team here practices on the same turf. The government should bring more turfs and infrastructure into the state,” opines Danish, who is a dire Cristiano Ronaldo fan.
He further explains that during curfews he has to take an alternative route and that also eats up into his time. The 22-year-old also accepts that the turmoil in the state had delayed their entry into the I-League. “Due to the unrest in the region, we have come into the I-league so late. I used to dream to play for my state. Last year, I was getting offer from other states to join their team but I rejected all them as I wanted to play for Kashmir,” says Danish, son of footballer Farooq Ahmad who played for the State Road Transport Corporation.
Danish admires the crowd support but also regrets that had there been complete peace in Kashmir, people would have loved the game more. “When you go outside the state, you see peace and people enjoying the game to their fullest; so sometimes it feels sad that that’s not the case here,” he rues.
Lack of proper infrastructure not only hampers the players’ practice but also bothers the spectators sometimes. “See, I am just sitting on this iron grill in this chilly cold. I am in my old age and I am shivering. You see, this is not safe also. I am afraid of falling off these grills,” Aazad Ahmad Khan, a spectator at the TRC turf and a footballer himself in his time, laments.
“The government should show some interest in football as people are very fond of this game here. If there were enough facilities, then I think every single youth would be involved in sports,” he adds.
I-League’s fight for survival
Recently, there was a row over selective live telecast of I-League matches. However, before the start of the season, Star Sports said they will telecast live all the 110 matches. This sudden shift in decision irked the team owners as they believed this was a deliberate move to promote I-League’s wealthy cousin Indian Super League (ISL).
There is no denying in the fact that after ISL’s inception in 2014, I-League’s popularity has come down. Moreover, many of the older league’s players are joining the rich ISL. Two-time title winner Bengaluru FC had partnered with ISL in 2017 and there are rumours that the other two big I-League clubs Mohun Bagan and East Bengal are also heading in the same direction.
Chattoo says that if a situation arrives that the club have to merge with the ISL for the good, he will not shy away from taking the step. “We and Shamim will not let our team down. If it is going to ISL, we’ll sell everything and pay the franchise fees and go. What else? If it comes to that there is no I-League, we can’t tell our boys that the show is over and goodbye.”