Concerned over the surge in drug consumption by the new generation in Srinagar, three friends decided to offer football as an antidote and floated the Downtwon Heroes FC. Three years later, while it is offering the flip side of the Sheh-e-Kashmir, the club is in Kokhrajhar (Assam) for its maiden Durand Cup participation, reports Babra Wani
In the labyrinthine alleys of Shehar e Khaas, better known as Downtown Srinagar, where history, culture, and architectural wonders have left their indelible mark, a football club has emerged, rising from obscurity like a phoenix from the ashes. This fledgling entity, born from humble origins, now aspires to wear the mantle of hero for Jammu and Kashmir, poised to showcase Kashmir’s prowess on the national stage. Its destination is the Durand Cup, a venerated national football competition that stirs the passions of enthusiasts across India.
Amidst the myriad football clubs scattered across the region, Downtown Heroes Football Club shines like a singular beacon. It boasts a remarkable distinction – predominantly composed of native Kashmiri players, with a significant contingent originating from the very heart of Downtown itself.
The club was the brainchild of Mushtaq Bashir and Hinan Manzoor, who envisioned creating a football club to nurture the local talent of Kashmir. They collaborated with Irfan Shahmiri and Qaiser Bhat to bring this idea to fruition.
“The idea behind forming this club was to counter the rising menace of drug addiction among the Kashmir youth,” explained Mushtaq, his voice filled with passion. “We wanted to provide a platform that would rescue the Kashmiri youth from falling into the trap of drug addiction.”
Mushtaq’s eyes shone with determination as he continued. “Another reason was to change the preconceived perception about the Srinagar Downtown area. Whenever anyone talks about Downtown, there’s this notion that it’s all about drugs and other negative activities, but that’s untrue. We have immense talent here, and that’s what we want to showcase.”
Though there have been other renowned and obscure football clubs, Mushtaq emphasised their desire to create a larger club with this particular name. After discussing the idea with Irfan, who now serves as their chairman and Kaiser, they laid the foundation of the club in 2020 and were later granted a premiere division by the concerned football association.
Although Mushtaq never got the opportunity to play football himself, he had a profound passion for the sport and was determined to establish this club.”We all talk about drug addiction in Kashmir, but nothing substantial is being done,” Mushtaq said, a note of frustration in his voice. “So, we wanted to counter that and provide a choice to the youth, saving them from the clutches of drugs. Sports can be a great alternative.”
The club has designed three levels: pre-teens (U12), junior players (U16) and professionals. By showcasing the hard work of their professional team, which is performing remarkably well, they aim to motivate young players and provide them with hope for a stable future and career, steering them away from negative activities.
Another significant goal of the club is to improve the image of the Srinagar Downtown area. “The Downtown area has a negative image, and we want to change that,'” Mushtaq stated resolutely.
Mushtaq’s face lit up as he recalled their recent achievement, “When the management of the Durand Cup announced our name, we received many calls from national media, most of whom were unaware of our club. It was a pleasant surprise for everyone,” he shared with a smile.
Downtown Heroes Football Club is committed to providing a platform for local talent, offering them a positive outlook on life, both personally and professionally. Currently, the club boasts 24 players in the professional team and over forty players in the U16 and U2 teams.
“Almost 95 per cent of our professional team players are locals, making us one of the two clubs in the I-League without any non-local players in the playing team,” Mushtaq proudly mentioned. The club has only two non-local players, one from Mumbai and another from Tripura.
With Aijaz Ahmad Bhat as their coach and some small local sponsors, the club initially relied on self-funding, but they later secured sponsors to support their endeavours. There is no governmental funding involved in their operations.
Mushtaq, who runs an advertising agency, stated that in 2020 when they first formed the club, “due to the pandemic, we could not play much.” However, in 2021, “the first professional league was conducted in which Downtown Heroes FC participated for the first time and secured the third position.”
Later, for the I-League second division, Downtown Heroes FC was the sole team from Kashmir potentially representing it. “But when our name was suggested to the All India Football Federation (AIFF), they rejected it straightaway, stating that we were too young. However, we did not lose hope,” Mushtaq recalled. “We kept sending them continuous emails, and as soon as the new presidential secretary was elected, we went to meet him and shared our story. He then nominated us for the I-League, but with a condition that we had to qualify,”
The club was sent to Assam to play the qualifying match and won.
The club then competed in the I-League second division in 2022, they ranked second in their group of six teams, which is why this year, they have been nominated for the Durand Cup. It is one of the oldest football tournaments, not only in India but also in Asia. “Almost 24 top teams are participating in the tournament, and our club is one of them, the only one from Kashmir this year,” Mushtaq stated.
For three years, many players from the club have also had the opportunity to play at the national level and have been signed by other national-level clubs as well.
“Downtown Heroes FC is currently the best football club in Kashmir,” Talib Gulzar, a player for the senior team, stated confidently. “Our owners are very kind and dedicated to the club. They provide a significant platform to the local players of Kashmir by giving them a chance to play in the second division I-league and Durand Cup. We are currently on top of the Kashmir premier league. We train six days a week and have the best coaching staff.”
Almost all the players in the FC are well-read and pursuing master’s in different fields. Some have strong technical backgrounds and quite a few are established businessmen.
The team has Shahmeer Tariq, a B Tech from Zakura Campus Kashmir University; Mohammad Inam, a diploma civil engineer; Saqlain Shafi and Hyder Yousuf, both pursuing their graduation at the Gandhi Memorial College, Srinagar. “Our players are young, residents and passionate about football,” Kaisar said. “We have businessmen and we have commoners and the game is connecting them all.” He said a proper follow-up on a consistent basis will help the FC emerge as a major platform for the new generation of players.
According to Mushtaq, they chose football because it is one of the most popular games in Kashmir, particularly among the youth. It holds great scope in the region and is one of the community sports. “I have heard from my elders that people used to throng the stadiums in large numbers to watch the game,” Mushtaq said, “So, it has always been about football for us.”
Football in Kashmir has seen rising star players like Mehrajuddin Wadoo and Majid Kakroo, who represented Kashmir at national levels and played for leading national clubs, leaving a mark for themselves and inspiring younger generations to follow in their footsteps.
Football is one of the popular modern games that were intruded by Tyndale Biscoe in the early 19930s. It was primarily the Christian Missionary School set up that patronised the game and made it popular. Post-partition, various government departments started sponsoring their football teams and it became a phenomenon. However, the sport got an abrupt halt as the militancy erupted. It took almost a decade for the game to get revived.
Though there are various football clubs in Kashmir, three are very prominent – Lone Start FC, Real Kashmir FC, and now Downtown Heroes FC. Besides, there are various football teams that are run by various banking organisations and government departments. Football is more popular in Srinagar city, unlike the periphery where cricket matters.
Mushtaq mentioned that players from Kashmir often struggle when playing outside due to the scorching heat. “The players here are not trained to play in higher temperatures, so we try to prepare our players for that.”
Previously, the club used to practice on the grounds at Islamia College, Hawal, but now they practice on the turf provided by the Jammu and Kashmir Sports Council. They ensure that the training schedule does not affect the education of their players.
“We want to take our club to a level where it becomes a role model, a ray of hope for others,” Mushtaq shared about his plans.
They also plan to participate in national-level tournaments to showcase their potential and talent. “We have a lot of talent that needs to be shown to the world so that they get a chance with bigger clubs,” Mushtaq asserted.
The club also plans to conduct camps for students. “We are also planning to train the emerging young talent and provide them with a platform,” declared Mushtaq. “We are also planning to identify girls to form another group.”
Besides, the resource-deficient club is exploring tie-ups with international clubs to provide exposure to their players. They also are looking for sponsors so that the initiative does not fail for lack of resources.