Real Kashmir: Its dreams and challenges

Formed in 2016 as an outlet for the pain and frustration of the youth of Kashmir after massive floods, Real Kashmir made the world sit up and take notice.

Real Kashmir became the first-ever team from Kashmir to play in the I-League and was title contender at one point of time last year.   -  Nissar Ahmad

One year is a long time in an athlete’s life. For many, it would be a cliché thrown around a lot more often than experienced. For Real Kashmir FC, it’s been the norm since coming into existence.

Last year around this time, a bunch of young men — excited at the prospect of playing against India’s best footballers — were going through a tiring but fun day-long shoot for a premium brand that had decided to associate with them.

Formed in 2016 as a community service and an outlet for the pain and frustration of the youth of the State after massive floods, Real Kashmir FC had managed to make the world sit up and take notice, winning the I-League 2nd Division in only its second year of existence and earning promotion to the top flight. For most of its local talent, this was the first real step into the world of professional football. There were dreams of doing well, tempered with the realism of the challenge ahead and the realisation that simply managing to stay up there would be an achievement.

Cut to 2019 and it is difficult to believe the team is waiting to host its first games of the 2019-20 season in a situation unprecedented even by Kashmir’s unpredictable record. The league itself has been all but demoted to secondary status, replaced by the fancier Indian Super League. Off the field, the erstwhile State has lost its very statehood, reduced to a Union Territory and governed directly by the Centre. There has been a communication clampdown, on for more than 100 days, mobile networks restored only recently and the internet still out of bounds. In a 21st century world, Kashmiris are living 20th century lives.

On field, though, it is business as usual. A third-place finish last season was enough for teams to make it a marked side. The novelty and fairytale has worn off, replaced by hard-nosed professional rivalry. The team, to be fair, wouldn’t have it any other way and a BAFTA award for BBC’s documentary on the club has only fuelled its ambitions of going further this time around.

Fans of Real Kashmir FC brave snow and rain to watch their team’s ecncunter against Gokulam Kerala Football Club at the TRC Ground in Srinagar in February.   -  Nissar Ahmad

 

Aiming higher

“No one expected us to do so well in our debut season. We were the new kid on the block. Last year we had the best defensive record in the league. Now the dreams are bigger and our aim is to finish higher,” coach David Robertson has said, claiming better team composition and pre-season training — “considering the fact we began in August, this should be the longest pre-season in history” — tongue firmly in cheek.

Robertson has been around all through the club’s phenomenal rise through the ranks and has been a major part of that growth. The Scotsman, whose son Mason is also part of the squad since last year, has been able to forge a well-knit unit, although he credits the players, their mental toughness and emotional bonding for the success. In fact, from the owners of the club — Shamim Meraj and Sandeep Chattoo — to the staff and to the players, everyone insists it is the passion and relationship in the side that has led to RKFC becoming the quintessential underdog fairytale story that everyone loves.

“It’s the only hope for the youth in the State and we cannot let them down. It’s more than just a football club, we will probably never make money out of it. It’s the passion that is driving all of us. We have achieved something beyond football — we have managed to get the people together, broken barriers,” Chattoo says.

The political situation is a concern, but that’s natural. It is not a worry, though, with even the foreign players in the ranks able to joke around it. They insist on focusing on the game, all the time. “It’s ensured the team stayed focused on football instead of their wives or girlfriends! Someone like Loveday (Enyinnaya) has been around from the beginning, I have been here, so we know what to expect. There are no security concerns. In fact, I think my time here has made me a better person. Earlier, may be, I was more materialistic, but now it is more important to be happy and healthy and with the people you love,” Robertson insisted.

“No one expected us to do so well in our debut season. We were the new kid on the block. Last year we had the best defensive record in the league. Now the dreams are bigger and our aim is to finish higher,” says coach David Robertson.   -  Nissar Ahmad

 

Kallum Higginbotham, the new Scot signing this year, has already learnt to appreciate actual communication during his brief stay so far. “Yes, there is a stereotypical view of Kashmir, but since I have come I can safely say that it is completely different to what my own view was. Growing up, it’s been so easy contacting people with the touch of a finger, it’s probably brought me down a bit and made me realise how much I depend on my phone.

“It’s the most tight-knit squad I have been involved in and I think that’s because I have no phone to go and search the web whenever I want. I know a lot more about Mohammed Hammad and he knows about me than if we had our phones, it’s just that in this modern age we do not communicate any more,” he said.

But Chattoo admits things would only get difficult going ahead. With the I-League-ISL merger roadmap drawn up, the club needs to focus on finances as well. “I will be very honest — what option does any club have? ISL is here to stay and they have given I-League teams a dignified way to merge. Either be number 1 or 2 and get promoted or find the money. As a small club, we cannot pay ₹14 crore as franchise money. For a club like us, we have to be performing all the time,” he admits.

Local stars shining bright

But the biggest gainers of RKFC’s success have been the Kashmiri players in the side — those who never thought their skills would get an audience beyond the local playgrounds. Consider this: Khalid Qayoom joined RKFC in 2017 after trials for his first-ever professional club experience. Danish Farooq Bhat, nicknamed ‘Kashmiri Ronaldo’ was the club’s top-scorer last season. Defender Mohammed Hammad played a big role in the team’s defensive superiority against bigger clubs. Just a handful of names that make RKFC what one of them says “pride of Kashmir”. And Chattoo says, having their faces on banners back home is ‘unreal’.

Belonging to localities like Eidgah and Sakidafar in Srinagar that resonate with outsiders only as names they hear on television, the communication lockdown sits easy on them, having mastered the art of attending practice sessions amid curfews and bypassing blockades. “Jaise aapke Delhi me traffic jam hota hai, waise yahan curfew hota hai (Curfews here are like traffic jams like in your Delhi)” Bhat had told this reporter last year, with a laugh.

Family support and public popularity has helped. Qayoom talks of how the players got ₹750, including stay, per Santosh Trophy game last year. “Some of my colleagues in the CAG office had played Ranji Trophy for J&K, and they got ₹1.5 lakh per match, although RKFC pays really well. And yet, they yearn for the kind of popularity football gets here. So, you can imagine the craze,” he says. This, despite the bandhs and curfews and violence.

That they can laugh about it all despite often being stopped and questioned by security forces on their way to or from practice is a measure of their love for the game. Robertson says, “It’s not about the owners or coaches or the players. It is the people of Kashmir and the 20,000 who turn up for the games and support us. They will feel they haven’t got something they deserve, for no fault of their own (if games are moved out).”

Those, in essence, are the ones keeping the RKFC fairytale alive.