THE CH2 HOTEL in Srinagar is the home of Real Kashmir FC. This is where the players, staff, coaches, owners spend most of their time — chatting, eating, playing together, marking their losses and wins. During the I-League, the hotel becomes their own little Kashmir in Srinagar, because there is nothing to do in the city post-6 pm, after practise or a match, for the players.

On the road from Srinagar Airport to the CH2 hotel — an hour-long journey in peak traffic — the Army is deployed at almost every kilometre.

The markets are open; children are on their way from school, headed to coaching classes. But the Army and police presence in the city’s every nook and corner makes the air feel heavy. The chinar trees too appear upset, as autumn has taken all their leaves away. In a way, they represent the state of the Valley over these past few horrid months. But, the leaves will return by April, the locals say, and the city will look better then.

Seven months after the abrogation of Article 370, ‘normalcy’ of a kind has returned to Kashmir. The roads are busy, yet the insecurity among locals can be felt. For Real Kashmir FC, however, there is something else they wish you to focus on. As their banner at the TRC Stadium, where the home team would take on East Bengal, declares: “When you see Kashmir through the lens of football, you see the Real Kashmir.”

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In this photo: The picturesque TRC stadium in Srinagar where Real Kashmir play all their home games in I-League. Image courtesy: Shubham Pandey

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The CH2Hotel is owned by Real Kashmir FC’s co-owner Sandeep Chattoo. Off the field, he is the most important man in the club on match day; his passion — in evidence during the clash with East Bengal — belies the fact that until two years ago, he knew nothing of football. He cheers on and hugs his players, welcomes guests to a game as though it were a joyous family occasion.

He is everywhere at once — from the VVIP section to the sidelines, guiding his troops to ensure the game starts without any hassles. His son is present, as is his wife. Chattoo’s partner and co-owner in the Real Kashmir FC dream, Shameem Meraj,is in Delhi, stuck in a meeting to help clear a sponsorship amount for the club.

“Holding a football match in Kashmir is not like holding it elsewhere in the country. The challenges here are all very different,” says Chattoo.

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In this photo: Sandeep Chattoo (in spectacles) with the RKFC's local favourite, Danish Farooq Bhat. Image via Sandeep Chattoo/ Facebook

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The day Real Kashmir FC’s playing season began last year, with their first match in the Durand Cup, curfew was imposed in Srinagar over the Article 370 abrogation.

It was not the ideal start for the club, which had finished at No. 3 in the I-League last season and was looking to do better in this one. Most importantly, it was looking to play more home matches in the next season.

The lockdown in Kashmir lasted till January, with markets opening for two hours every morning and schools re-opening only a month ago. Internet services are slowly being resumed.

“There was no telephone, no internet,” says Chattoo, of the curfew. “When we came back here, to practise for the pre-season, we did not even have a ground. So we used the DPS School here to kind of train the players. It has been a very, very difficult and uphill task.”

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Above image: The RKFC management said that around 10,000 people witnessed the home team's clash against East Bengal. In January this year, the number was close to 15,000 in the Mohun Bagan match.

At 2 pm on match day, the referee blew his whistle. It was not going to be just another football match; the stadium filled quickly and by half-time, there were almost 10,000 people inside. (The stadium can easily squeeze in around 15,000 spectators, as seen in the game against Mohun Bagan in January.) The crowd chanted the club’s slogans, screaming their hearts out for their players.

The spectators were a little upset that their favourite, “the entertainer” Gnohere Krizo, had not started in the XI. “Krizo is an amazing player. We all love him. He entertains us and that is what we need in football,” a student said. The drums and dholaks were out and the chants got louder with every passing minute. The spectators stood in opposing stands in the stadium, taking friendly potshots at each other. But on the ground, tempers were flaring.

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Local hero Danish Farooq got his second yellow card in the 38th minute of the match and had to leave the field, with the hosts reduced to a 10-man side and the score still 0-0. Before this incident, East Bengal’s Johnny Acosta was elbowed by a Real Kashmir player and blood streamed from the side of his head. Real Kashmir’s Mason Robertson had been involved in another on-field scuffle.

As Danish strolled back to the locker room, Chattoo and Co. were furious. The Real management would report this incident, among others, to the All India Football Federation (AIFF). The hosts felt cheated by the refereeing, while East Bengal felt they had been in a wrestling match; their coach Mario Rivera said he was happy his players came back alive from the field at the end of the game. This statement so annoyed Real manager David Robertson that he left the press conference after giving a short rejoinder.

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Above image: Danish Farooq, who was red carded in the match against East Bengal, asking the crowd to continue cheering the team.

New Real Kashmir signee Robin Singh was handed a red card for shouting at officials from the bench. And right before the final whistle, in the third minute of the extra time in the second half of the match, captain Loveday Okechukwu brought down Juan Mera Gonzalez in the box, conceding a penalty goal to East Bengal.

What followed was a series of heated exchanges, escalating to such an extent that a local spectator ran onto the middle of the field, expressing his anger at the developments. As cops moved onto the field, Chattoo and his team intervened to have both sides back in their respective locker-rooms and crowd handled with patience.

The tension was real, in that moment.

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The last-minute goal, loss and bad refereeing had angered Chattoo, but he knew the importance of remaining calm in that moment. He quickly went near the stand where the spectators had gathered to scream at the referees, and quietly asked them to leave. The fans obliged and exited the venue instantly. However, there were still a few who waited, and made sarcastic jibed at the referees as they went to their cars.

Thirty minutes after the game, the ground was empty. The tension and passion of the last few minutes of the match had made the Kashmiris’ investment in their club and football very evident.

Back at the CH2, no one was in a good mood. In a big room, the coaches, a few players and Chattoo, watched the match. There were discussions about the penalty, the red card, the elbowing, the push. “It was not fair refereeing at all. You can win or lose a game but I am not happy with the refereeing done today,”Chattoo fumed, watching the replays.

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Even if they didn’t become champions this season, Real Kashmir FC was looking to climb to the second spot in the table, which would have guaranteed them an AFC (Asian Football Confederation) slot. Imagine a club formed only three years ago playing in the AFC Championship. For Chattoo and Meraj, who started a small club back in 2014 with the aim of giving the Valley’s youth a sporting chance, the AFC would mean a great deal — signifying the journey from Real Kashmir FC’s modest beginnings to winning the Division-2, playing in the top division and snagging an Adidas sponsorship.

To outsiders, it may seem like a great sports story from the Valley. And indeed it is. But, for the club to run and prosper has not been easy, Chattoo confirms. Which is why the East Bengal loss and he bad refereeing hurt him and the fans so.

“Kashmiris are looked upon…as you know… as dangerous,” he says. “People feel they cannot be like the normal youth of some other place. The fans, even though they did not like what was happening in the game with East Bengal, once we interacted with them, it was alright. Anywhere else, fans could have reacted more aggressively after seeing what happened on the field. See, the police cannot control such scenes. We went to the crowd and told them, ‘Stop it, and go home. What has happened has happened.’ That’s important.”

Chattoo cannot help but defend his people. They make this football club what it is, and nothing should take their passion, the sport away from them.

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The fans’ reaction during the Real Kashmir FC-East Bengal clash illuminated the fierce pride attached to playing at home.

The crowd was restive, but they had just seen their team go down against a 100-year-old club due to bad refereeing. This scenario itself would not have been possible in Kashmir some years ago. Even before the start of the season, with Real Kashmir aiming to play all their home games here, the possibility looked slim: the club did not have permission to hold matches in Srinagar, as more than 20 people were not allowed to gather in one place. And here, the club owners wanted a football match to take place in the heart of the city amid the general gloom.

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The positive impact of the game can be gauged by the fact that women too have come to watch the matches. During the East Bengal match, there were three female Law students, who had come to witness the game live.

“In December, things were different. Strikes were still on; markets were closed during the day. They would open for a few hours in the morning. For the club, it was not a regular thing. For us, doing anything is not normal. It is not like in Bengaluru or any other place, where you go to the stadium and play. The security… gathering information… the safety of players and spectators is of utmost importance… Then the administrative end of things needs looking after,” says Chattoo.

Before the first home match, the club was told by the local administration that they would be given permission to hold it only if they promised there wouldn’t be more than 1,500 spectators inside the stadium. Real Kashmir accepted. However, on the day of the game, after the police allowed 1,500 people in, there were around 4,000 more still waiting outside, refusing to leave. Later, they climbed onto an under-construction flyover from where the ground is visible. The police had to give in and allow them inside the stadium as well.

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While in other parts of the country, club owners and league officials would be thrilled with a packed house, Real Kashmir views them in a different way.

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During a Real Kashmir FC match, families too come to watch, with kids.

“The Real Kashmir vs East Bengal match was supposed to be held on Sunday. We got it changed to Monday. Because [on a weekend] you cannot control the number of people coming in to watch the match. The game was held on Monday at an odd time so that people don’t come. It’s a reversal here,”says Chattoo.

This is because the police doesn’t want to take chances with the law and order situation, although Chattoo believes that with every match, the authorities are gaining confidence.

The club’s role in strengthening this confidence cannot be understated. For permission to host the games, Real Kashmir FC has had no option but to accept the conditions imposed. The owners knew that they had to be professional in the way they operated, for things to proceed smoothly.

After Adidas came on board as a partner at the start of the club’s first season, Chattoo told Meraj that they could not run the club the way they had during the Division-2 days. A big brand endorsement made them more alert and responsible and it started reflecting in their way forward.

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“We realised the Adidas tag on our uniforms meant a lot because no other clubs in the I-League had such a big brand as a sponsor. It became more of an added responsibility, to do things more professionally,” he says.

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To the club, a priority was playing home games. And for that to happen, they needed a ground.

The TRC Stadium had no facilities. Real Kashmir petitioned the government to build the basic infrastructure, and received a positive reply. Within 45 days, two new buildings came up at the stadium, to serve as media centres and the players’ locker rooms.

Securing police permission was also difficult. The club was asked to hold matches only if they could hand over copies of the ID proof of each and every spectator who came to watch the game. To that end, the club has a massive group of volunteers who take photos of the spectators’ IDs and enter it into a database that is handed over to the police after the match. This is a routine process during and after every match, and not more than 15 people oversee it.

“When the first home game happened here, we realised this is not just about the sport, it is beyond football. Before that, we had never seen youth assemble together, cheering and laughing. Young girls coming alone and watching the game... It was so difficult to imagine what we had done. That became an added motivation for us to try and compete,” says Chattoo.

For a small club like Real Kashmir FC, the last seven months have been a rollercoaster. Their success is not limited to their performance. Chattoo has given away his hotel to the players. Meraj has made many efforts as well, behind the scenes. Chattoo’s son Samarth, who runs a start-up in Bengaluru, is involved currently with the club and is helping his father run things in Srinagar. A hundred volunteers ensue there are no hiccoughs in bringing football lovers inside the TRC Stadium on match day. Police guarantee the safety and security of spectators. The government is building more grounds in Kashmir. The old football ground — Bakshi Stadium — is currently under construction and will be ready in a few months.

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Change is coming, and it is visible. Not only on the ground, but also in the club’s will to revamp the football culture of Kashmir, which produced so many national-level players in the pre-militancy days.

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Above photo: The two buildings (hut shaped) were erected in 45 days at the stadium by the state government at the club's request. Image via Facebook/ Sandeep Chattoo

Kashmiris like Chattoo, Meraj and others are willing to go above and beyond the pale. They are ready even to even sit on broken seats in the VVIP section at the TRC ground — because a match is taking place, and that the seat is broken, is unimportant.

“I know the seat is broken. I know how to sit in it,” said a guest during the Real Kashmir-East Bengal match, from his precarious perch. In a way, he represents all of Kashmir, which hopes to play and watch football for many years to come.

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