Of floods, curfew and football – Real Kashmir!

Things have been moving at a brisk pace ever since Real Kashmir became the first club from Jammu and Kashmir to enter the elite football I-League. The league is scheduled to start in the last week of October and will be on till mid April 2019.

Real Kashmir qualified for the top tier of the I-League after emerging champion in the 2017-18 Second Division I-League.   -  NISSAR AHMAD

It’s 8 a.m. and the sun is mild at the Kashmir Valley’s lone astro turf stadium, located in the capital Srinagar’s Tourist Reception Centre (TRC) ground. The weather is a blessing for the 11 men in fluorescent green jerseys playing on the ground. It’s Monday. The separatists’ shutdown call and the volatile situation outside is no deterrent for the players, who have been practising two hours every day for many months now.

The calls of the players of the Real Kashmir Football Club are heard loud and clear at the stadium that is all set to host its first ever I-League match. Yes, things have been moving at a brisk pace ever since Real Kashmir became the first club from Jammu and Kashmir to enter the elite football league. The league is scheduled to start in the last week of October and will be on till mid-April 2019. Needless to say, the football-crazy local population is ecstatic.

David Robertson, the 49-year-old head coach, stands silently, observing and taking notes of the players’ game. His task is tough.

“There is a lot of hunger in the players. All they require now is to increase their mental toughness before taking on the big teams in the I-League,” the coach says.

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A former Glasgow Rangers FC player, Robertson compares the youngsters of Real Kashmir with the young players in the United Kingdom — where he has coached big clubs like Leeds United and Rangers — and teams in the United States, and says, “Players here don’t get fatigued. There are no complaints about fitness. Even if they are injured they continue to play. They are indestructible.”

Robertson, who has been coaching the team since January 2017, had to get tough with them on one account. “Taking rest is equally important ahead of big games. It keeps desire and hunger intact. I warned the players of a penalty in case they showed up at practice matches despite it being their off-day. Many would still come,” he says.

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David Robertson, the Scottish coach of the Real Kashmir Football Club, is very happy with the way the team is shaping up.   -  NISSAR AHMAD

 

Real Kashmir FC, just four years old, made history when it qualified for the prestigious I-League 2018-19 after its victory against Hindustan FC 3-2, in Bengaluru on May 30, in the Second Division I-League.

The zeal and desperation to prove the point that Jammu and Kashmir football can match the best in the country can be gauged from the fact that two Real Kashmir players, Danish Farooq and Muhammad Hamad, played without any break in 10 matches during the Second Division I-League.

“I played all the minutes of the league. It was a big platform. It infused energy. Our team was aiming to win from day one. We were focused. It resulted in our victory,” says Farooq.

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Farooq, 22, the son of footballer Farooq Ahmad who played for the State Road Transport Corporation, was brought up kicking footballs from his schooldays. “My father would make me play in the morning and have more practice after school in the evening. Even during the Second Division I-League this year, I followed a strict regimen to recover from physical fatigue. I also worked on my mental toughness,” says Farooq, who is the team’s key player, positioned as an attacking midfielder. He believes mental toughness is required even more in the upcoming league, where the opponents are really tough. The team is also hiring psychiatrists to maintain the team’s equilibrium.

The team remained unbeaten in the Second Division I-League and this is worrying the coach now. “Winning and losing is fine, but winning and not losing puts additional pressure. One loss now can have a negative impact on the team’s morale,” says Robertson, who termed his team’s entry into the I-league as not less than “a fairytale journey.”

Shamim Meraj, one of the owners of Real Kashmir, recalls the year 2014 and the team’s journey from the flood-affected playgrounds in Srinagar. “I, along with three football enthusiasts, was walking down a boulevard after not being allowed to play at a ground at Sanat Nagar. Floods had devastated everything. During the conversation, it crossed our mind that we should make it big in football,” he says.

They started piecing together a team, despite the poor sports infrastructure and very few grounds available. “We had just one astro turf in Srinagar. No playground was in a condition to practice and we had to wait for our slot to play at the TRC grounds. Practising every day was out of the question,” says Meraj. The club got registered with a snow leopard logo in a year. The local animal, Meraj says, represented stealth, mystery and frightening zeal.

It was on a chilly morning in January 2017 that coach Roberston arrived in Srinagar. He was mulling options to coach teams in Uganda, China or India. “I found Real Kashmir a young team. I thought I could leave a mark. I had never been to India before. It was tough initially when I arrived here,” recalls Robertson.

In the first week of his stay, Robertson found it hard to grapple with the cultural divide. Frequent power cuts and internet outages also made his life miserable. And he thought of packing up for good. “I took him home. I asked him to rethink. After six months, he decided to stay back,” says Meraj.

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Robertson got so attached to the young team that he brought his 23-year-old son, Mason Lee Robertson, here as a midfielder, asking him to quit Peterhead FC back home. “The biggest problem I spotted when I arrived was lack of exposure. The players here were playing among themselves. They had never played with foreigners. We have six foreigners playing now,” says the coach.

The local players indeed have accepted a Nigerian player, Enyinnaya Loveday Okechukwu, as Real Kashmir’s captain. Four other Africans — Katebe Aaron from Zambia, Henry Ezeh and Bazie from Nigeria and Krizo from Ivory Coast — are also pitching in with their skills.

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A practice match in progress between the Real Kashmir players. Six foreign players have been recruited, five of them Africans.   -  NISSAR AHMAD

 

The case of Suman Dutta is an interesting one. A former player for Mohammedan SC, Mohun Bagan and Mumbai Tigers, he suffered a knee injury in 2010 and exacerbated it by playing within five months for Mohun Bagan. “It impacted my performance. Real Kashmir has provided me a platform to prove myself. The team is getting better and better,” says Dutta.

It’s not just Dutta whose prestige is at stake in the upcoming league. Local players too have to prove themselves to their family and state. Take the 24-year-old Amer Rehman, for instance. The son of an embroiderer from Srinagar’s volatile Noorbagh area, Rehman was introduced to the sports by his colony elders who played football. “I got hooked to the game in my childhood. My father supported me despite poor earnings. I would recharge peoples’ mobile phones to earn my livelihood,” says Rehman. He sees Real Kashmir as a team that forced the country to turn the spotlight on the players in J&K. “We are under the scanner now. I see players from Kashmir moving to the next level, playing for India and at the global level,” says Rehman.

Robertson is banking on the crowd and local weather, which could even go to sub-zero. “All matches will be in the winter. Most teams are coming from the plains. The weather will benefit the locals. The local crowd will also make a difference for the players. Our hopes are high,” he says.

The I-league has a home-away format and Real Kashmir will get to play at all the places from where the other teams come. The TRC stadium in Srinagar accommodates between 8,000 and 10,000 spectators and the organisers are hoping to see a packed house despite the cold weather.

Dr Naseem Javaid Chowdhary, secretary, Jammu and Kashmir State Sports Council, sees the I-League as a turning point for the state’s football and has deputed his men to meet the requirements of the league. “New dressing rooms have been constructed in record time. We should be able to meet all the demands of the players. We are all set and are working on the publicity aspect, too, to highlight the feat,” says Chowdhary.

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He termed the coming league as a historic opportunity for local talent to upgrade their skills and have a firsthand experience of how football icons play the game. “Now onwards, there will be no looking back for local football players. There is a football fever in Kashmir and this has come as a shot in the arm,” says Chowdhary.

Local football icon Mehrajuddin Wadoo, who has represented India besides playing for the country’s top clubs, is eagerly waiting for the games to start. Wadoo, who heads the J&K Football Academy, is planning to get his players, drawn from the nook and corner of the state, to watch the matches. “We have around 5,000 football players registered with us. They will get to see the action live for the first time and this is bound to give a boost to our players,” says Wadoo. He blamed poor infrastructure and the lack of qualified coaches in Kashmir for the failure to produce footballers in a big way despite the sport being played for many decades, long before cricket was introduced here.

Real Kashmir is still struggling for sponsors. adidas is the only big corporate house that has come forward. The team has managed an annual budget of ₹2.5 crore with the local coporates, which is far less than what the other competitors have. The average annual budget of clubs coming to play in Srinagar is ₹15 crore whereas big ticket teams like Mohun Bagan has ₹20 crore at its disposal.

Coach Robertson is happy for one other reason, too. “Earlier, I could hardly see any player smiling. Maybe because of the place and the situation around. Now, the smiles are back on the ground. It gives me hope,” he says.