In Kashmir’s rich football history, uncharitable comments of an elderly resident provoked a journalist to start an amateur club. As the game warmed up, he took the mission seriously and eventually managed to come home as the first entrant to the I-League. This has pushed the managers to get more serious, hunt resources and take the Club to the next level, reports Umar Mukhtar
Shamim Meraj, an uptown resident of Srinagar and a newspaper editor, had a casual walk along with his friends after the 2014 devastating floods. Everything was frozen as a dull life dominated Kashmir after the deluge. While walking, their eyes caught some children playing football at a small public park at Sanat Nagar- almost the only patch of land in entire city which was not inundated. To divert the gazes and mind from the trauma, they joined the children. A 30-minute game acted cathartic to their stressed souls. They exchanged smiles, gave high five to the children and came back.
Next day, they joined the children again . It continued for some more days. One day, an elderly person interrupted the game.“This is not a playground, this is a housing colony park,” he almost reprimanded them. They were asked to find an alternative place for playing. The objection raised by the old man made Shamim and his friends leave the game halfway. They walked home back.
For Shamim, this episode was a game-changing event. He started thinking about the avenues available to the youth for refreshment and entertainment. “I found nothing around,” he said. “A dull and idle life was what the youth had, no activities were going around.”
So Shamim decided to start a football club. The aim was purely to have some space for just playing football in the spare time. Thus came into being the Real Kashmir Football Club. In March 2016, the boys were playing in the club.“Dribbling football from one pole to the other was making us happy. Also, it was keeping us physically fit,” Shamim said.
As they continued playing football, new players started joining them. They learnt a lot and were now skilled footballers. Later they participated in the local tournaments too. “We had no money so we would beg, borrow or even steal to keep the ball running in the field,” Shamim said. Soon, they had a good experience and match-winning performance. Football lovers began to acknowledge their efforts and encouraged them to pick up the crucial skill and become a professional team.
Real Kashmir Football Club started as the amateur one and within a few years emerged as a professional team. To improve its capacity, Shamim said they involved professional foreign coaches.
In its take-off, the unrest in 2016 was a serious problem. Despite the tensions around, it managed some sort of coaching. Soon, they were Delhi bound to participate in the Durand Cup, one of the oldest competitions in this part of the world. “We played three matches and were knocked out,” Shamim said. “We had matches with IAF and the army’s football team but could not withstand in the field.”
But the rare recognition by the society encouraged the management to think beyond the amateurism so they decided to participate in the II division I-League. Since 2007, I-League is a men’s professional football League in India. Every year, 10 teams are selected for playing 18 matches each. They had not much of the expectation from the League.
There were more experienced and professional teams participating in the I-League: Minewra-FC and Hindustan-FC were in the competition. Though enthusiastic and eager but they had little hopes of reaching to I-League. In the I-League 2017, they played some matches but these all ended in a draw or the defeat. “We went back to the backboard and discussed the plan that helped us gear up again,” Shamim said.
As the deadline for participation in the I-League 2017-18 was near, the tensions were up. The managers started dreaming about a win. They got serious. A veteran footballer, David Robertson from Scotland, and Jimmy Lindsey, his assistant, were tasked to train and coach the young guys.
Shamim breaks into uninterrupted laughs when he remembers the day when Jimmy Lindsey landed in Srinagar. The circumstances at that point in time were very scary. Kashmir was observing a shutdown. “Lindsey was shocked to see the people here living without Internet and no life on roads because of the shutdowns,” remembers Shamim. At first, Lindsey was reluctant to work here. So Shamim got into instant jugaad, he brought his trainer home, which helped him motivate, and he eventfully stayed.
The coach trained the boys quite impressively. Though the weather conditions and lack of infrastructure were the tough challenges, the coach and the team made full use of available resource and the training sessions were a huge success and morale-boosting events.
Real Kashmir FC was invited by Stenhousemuir Football Club to play a pre-season friendly at their stadium in Larbert Scotland in July 2017. As the invitation came, the real worry was the cost of air-tickets. So one of the promoters actually contributed half of the cumulative ticket cost. “All the three friendly matches in a week ended up in the draw,” Shamim said. “But this had boosted the morale of the players.”
Soon, they restarted a rigorous training, with dedication and hard work on the field and it finally paid. In the I-League (II Division), they won matches after matches. “An amateur journey would take us to such heights, we had never imagined,” said excited Shamim.
The zeal and the passion for the football landed the Club in the I-League. This fetched Real Kashmir FC the only rare instance of a Kashmir team getting into the I-League, ever. In fact, this is the first ever football club in entire north India to reach this spot.
For a year old team, it is really very difficult to even imagine facing experienced teams like Minewra FC and Hindustan FC, which have been playing for decades. Beginners, they had little hopes of doing anything noteworthy in the event. “The reasons were very obvious. There were teams who had been playing in such leagues for a very long time,” said Danish, a midfield player.
It was just the passion to play that proved the game-changer. The winner of the II division league qualifies for the I-League, Indian premier football league. Real Kashmir FC won the very first match that was played at Srinagar Turf ground. They played five matches here and won them all. It gave them moral boost and confidence. They then moved out and had to play in other states and had to face more tough teams. Even there they continued with wins after wins. They won all 13 matches. There were five foreign players playing in the team also.
Real Kashmir FC played 13 matches with 18 teams and remained unbeaten throughout the II division.“An amateur journey would take us to such heights, we have never imagined it,” said ecstatic Shamim.
Kashmir has two football clubs, the Lone Star FC and the Real Kashmir FC. Lone Star could not make it to the finals but earlier it had been the runners-up. The I-League success has given a profile that now other teams are seeking its players. One promoter said one of their footballers has been hired by a non-local club for Rs 20 lakh. Promoters are now planning to introduce the players to the society by showcasing them through outdoor hoardings. “We are getting some support from one sponsor on that front,” the promoter said. “We are waiting for a good documentary by a major global broadcaster and a long profile by a major sports company.”
Shamim says the real challenge starts now. After qualifying for the premier league, Real Kashmir FC has to improve more. “This league is more challenging,” Shamim said. “We will have to face the international standards.” It is not only performance alone that Real Kashmir FC will have to worry about.
“Now we have the real challenge before us. We are getting in a more professional league now. It will have costs on us,” admitted Shamim. A rough estimate shows that the Real Kashmir FC will have to bear a cost of Rs 2 crore in order to play in the premier league. The management is planning to sign some professional foreign players to elevate the team standards.
The management is now looking for the sponsors who will make this opportunity a successful one. Also, there is no proper infrastructure at home where they can practice. There is only one football ground available in Srinagar with inadequate facilities.
But the game has been challenging and satisfying, one of the promoters told Kashmir Life. “There are two vital motivations apart from offering a platform to the footballers in Kashmir,” he said. “To revive the game in Kashmir as it has enjoyed playing and watching football and to improve the standards of the players that they can get in bigger competitions across the world. Football is just not the game alone.”
In order to manage the costs that running this FC will incur, the managers are in talks with a lot of local sponsors and are trying to get in touch with various football enthusiasts outside Kashmir. “We are getting a highly positive response,” the promoter said. “We are in touch with some clubs abroad and that will help our players to have better interaction and training.”
Right now, the entire focus of the managers is on training. “We will be starting training by next week, and in September we will be flying to Mumbai for 10-days for training sessions at the Reliance Football academy,” Shamim said. “The I-League 2018-19 starts in October. Nine teams will fly to Srinagar for nine matches with us and then we will have to move out for remaining nine matches.”
Managers said they know what they are entering. “It is highly competitive now. We have to have the best skills, talent and lot of money,” Shamim said. “We are trying our best to have an honourable tally, this season when a Kashmir team will play in I-League for the first time in history.”
Real Kashmir FC has 30 footballers; half of them local. There are six foreigners and nine other players from the mainland India. For all of them and Kashmir, the game has just started.