by Vinayak Padmadeo
DELHI: After a torrent of congratulatory messages and calls, the enormity of the situation dawned on Shamim Meraj, the owner of Real Kashmir Football Club, the first Kashmir club to qualify for the I-League.
The highs of making it to the big league and making Kashmir proud were forgotten the moment reality hit. Real Kashmir FC will need to have a floodlit stadium and make other upgrades in order to host their home games in Srinagar. Meraj is now thinking about how to get the team’s home ground — TRC Polo Synthetic Turf Ground in Srinagar — I-League-ready.
“I request the J&K government to help us in bringing up the infrastructure of our stadium. We can’t do without a stadium,” Meraj told The Tribune over the phone from Bengaluru soon after his team’s historic 3-2 win over Hindustan FC.
“We only have one astroturf pitch there,” Meraj, the editor of a local newspaper, added. “It sometimes has to be shared by 10 football teams to train, including Lonestar Kashmir and J&K Bank. There are no floodlights. If we have to play in the I-League, we need them. We can’t run the game like the old times.”
Need to play at home, says coach Robertson
Rangers FC legend David Robertson, who took on the challenge of coaching this team 18 months ago, also said that the club needs a massive upgrade. “We have worked hard to get here and I think it will be a shame that if we don’t get to play in Kashmir,” Robertson said. “The people of Kashmir have waited for this for a long, long time. I think it is important that we play our home games at home to let the people see famous clubs coming to Kashmir, which probably two years ago nobody thought would happen.”
He has his share of demands: A bigger staff and a training venue that the team could call its own, apart from the stadium upgrade.
“There are not many facilities in Srinagar, so a lot of times we have to share them with other clubs,” he said. “We have got time slots to train. But hopefully, now things will get easier for us. It is a long season (in I-League) and we need more staff and better infrastructure. The ownership group knew what they were taking on when they entered the league because we are never going to be a team that just goes to participate. We always had the competitive edge to try and win it.”
The idea of setting up the club came to Meraj and his fellow owners after the 2014 floods in Kashmir. Meraj and his friends used to go for evening walks in the areas where the water level had receded. They would get disturbed by the sight of young Kashmiris smoking and wasting their time.
“We wanted to provide those youngsters with an outlet but it took us longer to make a club than we thought,” Meraj recalled. “It took us two years to become one.”
“When we got the permission, at first I didn’t realise we could play in the I-League (2nd division),” Meraj said about the club’s foray into professional football. “I thought we were cleared to play in small tournaments. But when I read the letter, it got clear that we could participate in the I-League. From then we have been on a memorable journey as a closely-knit team. Look where we have come today!”
With God’s help!
Meraj doesn’t want to discuss the difficulties of running a club on a small budget, merely saying: “Himmat-e-marda, madad-e-khuda (when the man dares, God helps).” But to make a team from scratch was tougher than he expected. The club had to organise trials, liaise with agents and show faith in the local players to set up a team.
“We had trials in Srinagar, Kolkata and then obviously with the help of some agents we managed to get the squad together,” Robertson said. “I think a lot of it was down to the energy and desire to do well. And last night we started with five Kashmiris… I think that added to the desire as they knew how important it was for the state of Kashmir, for us to qualify.”
“After playing a few games we felt we were strong enough to make it into the final four (of I-League 2nd Division), which we managed to do,” he continued. “The first two games in the playoffs, we managed to score late goals to win or get a draw. At certain times in the playoffs it looked as if we might be out, but the players had the belief. I think being together for four months, they have got a lot of belief in each other, and that got us through.” I-League CEO Sunando Dhar said Real Kashmir’s promotion opens a lot of avenues for the talented footballers from the state.
(The report appeared in Tribune Chandigarh under the title Reality hits Kashmir FC)