Warm hearts in cold seats!

The cold iron-bar seats were, however, no discomfort for the hooting and singing crowd, which cheered every pass, every dribble and every attempt to score a goal.

A competitive moment in Real Kashmir’s first home match, the opponent being Churchill Brothers.   -  Nissar Ahmad

From a private school premises to the tourism office’s courtyard, from a police compound to the floriculture department’s lawns, all were thrown open as parking facilities on November 6 in Jammu and Kashmir’s capital Srinagar. The valley’s football enthusiasts were converging on the Srinagar Tourist Reception Centre’s astro-turf ground to celebrate Real Kashmir’s first home match in the I-League, the premier tournament of Indian football.

The seasoned Churchill Brothers Football Club was the opponent and long before the game began, young and old jostled for a free entry into the ground to root for their team. The stands were named after local football veterans like Mehraj-ud-Din Wadoo and Muhammad Yousuf Dar, and there came a point when the State Sports Council decided to stop the entry of fans “for security reasons.” Conservative estimates put the number of spectators at 5,000.

“I decided to take a day off from my school. I wanted to see professional players playing right in front of my eyes. It was happening for real. Being a football enthusiast, the league means more motivation. I was able to pick up a few tricks of the trade by observing the players. There are more games to come and more to learn and apply in my life,” said Rayees Rather, a Class 12 student of Sri Pratap College.

It was nature’s fury, to be precise the devastating floods of 2014, which made the team’s owner, Shamim Meraj, think of forming a squad of national repute. Nature, indeed, was the first to root for host Real Kashmir as for the first time in nine years, J&K witnessed heavy snowfall in the plains, including the capital, Srinagar, on November 3. The day temperature plummeted to 5 degree Celsius and the nights to sub-zero.

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There could not have been a more perfect a setting for Real Kashmir’s “snow leopards,” the animal also the mascot of the team. On the big day, the stadium was more picturesque than ever. On one side was a row of chinars (maple trees) and on the other the snow-capped Zabarwan mountain range. There were also freshly installed camera stands and newly-constructed cottage-type huts for the players and the media. “In six weeks, we were able to meet national-level facilities. The home team playing 10 matches here against the best clubs of the country has come as a shot in the arm for local players and football here,” said Sarmad Hafeez, secretary, J&K Youth Service and Sports department.

The clouds gave way to the sun on the day of the game, lifting the temperature to 13 degree Celsius, much to the relief of Churchill Brothers, which had come from a warmer climate.

The cold iron-bar seats were, however, no discomfort for the hooting and singing crowd, which cheered every pass, every dribble and every attempt to score a goal. It was a pity that the match ended in a draw. Real Kashmir was encouraged with local songs by the crowd, including schoolchildren from the Delhi Public School. “Jeetaygha bhai jeetaygha (We shall win, we shall win),” resounded in the air.

Sitting in the crowd, former chief minister Omar Abdullah ran a running commentary on Twitter. “Watching Real Kashmir take on Churchill Brothers in the shadow of snow-capped mountains. It’s been a nailbiter. It was a closely contested first half with both the sides having a few good chances to score. We will all be rooting for you (Real Kashmir),” wrote Abdullah.

School students rooting for Real Kashmir at the I-League match against Churchill Brothers.   -  NISSAR AHMAD

 

The script to the run-up to the November 6 game was interesting. A two-minute emotional and musical film to pep up the local crowd was up online on October 31. A blind old man from rural Kashmir is seen cheering for the team in the film. It is no surprise that the video has logged around six-lakh views.

Real Kashmir’s upset 1-0 win against defending champion Minerva Punjab FC on October 31 had boosted its morale, but it could not use the climatic conditions to its advantage against Churchill Brothers.

“It was a big day and a historical event. The weather condition was an edge to us. Probably, it was not our day. We could not convert chances into goals,” said Danish Farooq, Real Kashmir striker, who was declared ‘Hero of the Match.’ His father, family and friends were seen continuously cheering for him and the team in the stands.

Farooq said the crowd’s support did pump up the team in the second half. “The crowd was cheering hard in the second half. We did try our best but could not convert chances into a goal,” he added.

He sees no flaw in the strategy, but only in its execution. “We will go with the same game plan on October 11 when we play NEROCA Football Club from Imphal. We will aim to score goals then,” said Farooq.

Another advantage that Real Kashmir had was that it had to contend with only 10 Churchill men from the 37th minute of the first half as the latter team’s goalkeeper, James Kithan, was expelled with a red card for using his hands to stop the ball outside the box while trying to baulk the Zambian Aaron Katebe.

Danish Farooq, of Real Kashmir FC, receives the ‘Hero of the Match’ against Churchill Brothers.

 

“The home match should have been won by Real Kashmir to take earn three points and strengthen the position on the score table. The wings of the opponents opened up with the red card and just 10 players on the ground, which was not capitalised on. Real Kashmir played the long ball to one side instead of dribbling around and marching to the goalpost,” said Majid Dar, a banker-turned-football player and a nodal officer for the league deputed by the State Sports Council.

Churchill’s fighting spirit could be gauged from the fact that its possession of the ball increased in the second half. It managed a total of 51 minutes of possession and came close to scoring twice with Lamgoulen Hangshing heading over the bar once.

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On the other hand, the host team missed four close chances, with the crossbar being hit twice, by Danish Farooq in the sixth minute and by Krezo in the 65th.

A statement from Real Kashmir, at the end of the game, summed up the day: “To all those who were at TRC grounds today, a big shukriya (thank you)! We could not manage to win but we hope that we won your hearts. Once again thank you so much for your support is our strength. Keep supporting the snow leopards of Kashmir.”

Speaking about a 1970s picture from the album of his footballer  father, Majid Dar said the I-league seemed to be a return of the golden era. “In the old picture, one could see football enthusiasts disembarking from buses to fill the ground. Football then was the only entertainment. Even office-goers would end up at the ground after the work hours,” said Majid, whose father was the first Kashmiri to play for Mohammedan Sporting Club in 1972 and for the Indian football team in 1977.

Even on November 6, the game came as a relief to the conflict-torn people of Kashmir, reviving the golden era of football.