Building On The Ball

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In the I-League’s first season, the 2-year old Real Kashmir has won and lost a match each and the third ended in a draw. The competition has contributed some activity to the ground, brand Kashmir, and the business as well. But the real tensions, the team managers say is how not to lose the attention and love that Kashmir has bestowed upon the nascent initiative, reports Masood Hussain

Real Kashmir Head Coach David Robertson With His Family. (KL Image by Bilal Bahadur)

As I-League, India’s only professional football competition comes to Kashmir, certain things are taking place gradually and silently. The credit goes to a journalist, Shamim Meraj, who set up Real Kashmir Football Club (FC) that was lucky enough to get an entry after emerging victorious in I-League’s second division, last season.

“In the eight-month long season, we are supposed to play 20 matches. We already played three – one each we lost, won as the third ended in a draw,” Shamim said. “Of the 17 remaining matches, we have to play seven more here and then move to different states for the remaining 11.”

Barring one Santosh Trophy, an inter-state competition, match and later a few exhibition matches in 2012, Kashmir has not witnessed any professional game in last many decades. The use of sports as a neutraliser of the situation by the governance structure has added politics to sports thus making it an untouchable area. But this situation has led Kashmir to a sort of deficit in understanding the processes and procedures that have evolved in professional sports across the globe.

But what excites Shamim and his businessman friend, Sandip Chattoo, is that Kashmir has owned the initiative emotionally, partly because it is professional and politically neutral. “The first match with Churchill Brothers saw many seats vacant, but when we played the second match with Neroca FC, the one we lost, we had 16000 people inside the stadium and another 4000 watching the game from outside, standing.”

The huge crowd was highly disciplined. Some of the young men who were involved in the match actually broke down when the Real Kashmir lost. “But what gave me hope was that the entire crowd gave a standing ovation to both the teams,” Shamim said. “They exhibited the discipline, a host sprit to the extent that the people in the sports sector tell me that in I-League’s this season, we had the best engaging spectators, for the entire 90-minutes, something that every other competitor lacked, so far.”

Real Kashmir players (KL Image by Bilal Bahadur)

Team insiders said they are gradually evolving in a mature team because there were not many occasions that would teach us the etiquettes and the processes. “I am slightly nervous because the next match is with Mohan Bagan, one of the legendary teams from West Bengal that people here know a lot about,” Shamim said. “There will be more people and that is adding to our nervousness.” Spectators require a formal free pass to watch the game.

The tourism department that usually invests in attracting people to Kashmir may not be around. But the competition is contributing to Kashmir’s historic hospitality story to get stronger and better. When Churchill Brothers were here, 60-rooms were the basic need. Neroca FC that came all the way from Manipur and defeated the Real Kashmir, had 50-rooms for many days. Shamim puts the requirement for around 100-rooms when the legendary Mohan Bagan comes to Srinagar for the November 20, match. “They have almost 200 of the fans that move with them,” Shamim said. “West Bengal knows Kashmir well and there is a possibility that the numbers may go up.”

A professional game adds to the economy. There are the cities across the world that has sports as the main basket. Hotels apart, they require transport, and almost all who come to Kashmir go with some kind of souvenirs. “This activity may not be a million dollars business but it is creating a narrative that is vital to the economy,” Shamim said. “When Star Sports telecasts these matches live from Srinagar, it automatically under-cuts the propaganda blitzkrieg that is dominating the TV news for many years now.” He said when a visiting team happily takes off, it gives him a satisfaction that he did something positive.

The media coverage that Kashmir is getting because of the competition is free of cost and promotes the destination. With the help of the Adidas, the Real Kashmir did a promotional video Here To Create Change that had impressive viewership, so far. “Last week, a Scottish reporter flew to Srinagar for three days and then we had great commentary in The Sun, The Times and The Daily Record,” Shamim said. “This is because that we had a European coach David Robertson whose son Mason is also playing for the team and now his family has flown to Srinagar and are living here for all these days.”

Real Kashmir Head Coach David Robertson With His Family. (KL Image by Bilal Bahadur)

Though the Delhi media has also been very pro-active in reporting the game, it is the political angle and the reportage’s linkage with the security situation that has the potential of the triggering a problem. “We are strictly working with the I-League and the connectivity with the local systems is to the level of facilitation. We are even willing to pay the rents of the Astroturf if it is required,” Shamim said.

I-League funds every team for every match. All the teams that would fly to Srinagar will get Rs 5 lakh for every match. For home turf, though it is only Rs 1 lakh, but the teams spend beyond this I-League support.

The teams have access to a lot of funds and resources. One team that is coming to Kashmir next week has only one sponsor paying more than eight crore rupees. “We are new to this world but we have been fortunate that a brand like Adidas has sponsored us and we are the only team in the I-League that has such a major sponsor,” Shamim said. “We have some expectations from a financial organisation and, at least, one of the local cement manufacturing corporate has come forward for help but it will take us time to reach a level where we have resource abundance, adequate enough to improve the status of the team.”

Real Kashmir managers have already started a process of taking the FC to a sort of institution that will have an identity and resources. “Without even an investment of a paisa, our Facebook fan following have tripled in last few weeks and that has given us an idea of creating a superstore with Real Kashmir brand,” Shamim said. “There is a strong possibility that the Adidas may be a willing partner.”

This essentially is the European concept which the German club, Borussia Dortmund has standardised to the extent that the township lives for football. “I have been to that city twice and there everything is linked to football,” Shamim said. “We will try to experiment with this.” The German team plays a weekend match with 82,000 attendance in the stadium.

The second idea is focussed on talent hunt because feeder service is key to the game. The average time span that a player spends on the ground rarely crossed 15-years. Ishfaq, one of Kashmir’s top players with Mohan Bagan, has already retired. “We have drafted a plan for 2023 under which we will identify 10 under-18 players and we will bear their costs of education and training,” Shamim said. “This will be a state level hunt because the idea is that at any point in time, we must have five of 11 players on the ground, who must be the state subjects.”

Currently, the Real Kashmir has 30 players on its rolls of which 15 are local, 10 are from the rest of India and five are foreigners. On the ground, however, there are three locals only. But those who are playing are interesting characters.

Danish Farooq, for instance, is a resident of Eidgah whose father was also a footballer, once playing for Mohan Bagan. “He is one of our best players who was never substituted,” Shamim said. “He is working for JK Bank but after people saw his capacity, he is getting very good offers.”

Hamaad is another player. A resident of Batamaloo, he was basically following the passion of his father, cricket. One day he hoped to be part of a competition, Shamim said, but the managers replaced him at the last moment. “He was shocked, and in utter frustration, he rushed home only to set afire his cricketing kit and joined football. Now see him where he is,” Shamim said.

The managers are keen to have some avenue for the girls who are passionate about football. “It is alluring because girls do not have an avenue but we have to be extra-cautious,” Shamim, a father of two daughters, said. “First we need to have some secure space where they can play thrice a week and then we have to create a full-fledged parallel set-up including the women trainers. This is something very sensitive, and unless we are sure of everything, we will not getting into it.”

Right now, however, the Real Kashmir managers are not bothered much about the expansion or the upgrade of the FC. “The response, we got is phenomenal and humbling,” Shamim said. “We just want Kashmir understands that our total experience in the game and its management is only of two years. We were only lucky to win a few games. We can lose also, and with our defeat, our people should not lose heart.” The system in vogue is that Real Kashmir will have to put in more efforts to ensure they do not fall in the bottom of the scoreboard once the season concludes with a new champion. The lower any team scores, the chances of their demotion gets close. But it is too early. They have still 17 games in hand.

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