As I-League 2018 kicks off, a look at the rise of Real Kashmir FC — and that of Valley's football culture
Football has had a relationship of ups and downs with Kashmir. And the story of Real Kashmir FC, the first team from the state to play in the I-League first division, has grown out of that tumult.
“My first World Cup experience is from 2002. The exploits of the Turks, Koreans and Senegalese players of that period figure among the favourite memories of every '90s born child”.
Had I written this article before the FIFA World Cup 2018, those might have been my starting lines. However, owing to the manner in which this World Cup concluded, I’ll use just one word instead: “Croatia”.
Like a multi-sequel movie, the unexpected nature of this game keeps fans and onlookers enthralled; each part better than the other — like Monaco’s triumph in the Champions League a year ago, the Greek heroics of 2004, Atletico Madrid’s breaking up of the decade-long Barcelona-Real Madrid dominance of the La Liga, among others.
From bloody summer curfews to a snow-covered half season, the journey of Real Kashmir FC is reminiscent of the most exhilarating moments in the game.
Real Kashmir FC is the only team from the Valley to play in the top tier of Indian league football. After triumphing in the second division, Real Kashmir FC has been promoted to the fist division of the I-League; the team faces off against Minerva on 31 October, at the Tau Devi Lal Stadium in Gurgaon.
Football has had a relationship of ups and downs with Kashmir.
Cecil Tyndale-Biscoe, the founder of the Srinagar missionary school that bears his name, is believed to have introduced the sport to the state, in the last decades of the 19th century. It is said that when Biscoe first demonstrated the game at Central Mission High School, Fateh Kadal, the students refused to play the game; the ball was made of leather — a material Brahmins were forbidden to touch.
Despite the initial hesitation, the sport soon caught on and by the 1980s, Kashmir had a vibrant local football culture.
Then came the insurgency, and football was among the many casualties in the Valley. Abdul Majeed Kakroo (aka the 'Lion of Kashmir'), the defender who captained the Indian squad in the sixth edition of the Nehru Cup in 1987 in Kozhikode, was the last spark of that glory.
Glimpses of a revival were seen in the 2005 SAFF Championship Final, when another defender headed the ball into Bangladesh’s net, to break the deadlock in India’s quest to regain the Championship. Mehrajuddin Wadoo, among the best Indian defenders of the present era, has a notable presence in Indian football, appearing in 32 caps for the international side. Wadoo has also played for many major clubs — from East Bengal, to Mohun Bagan, Mohammedan SC, Salgaocar, Chennaiyin FC (where he played a significant role in the second season of the ISL Championship), FC Pune City, Mumbai City FC etc. Wadoo was also part of the Indian national team in their two successful Nehru Cup runs.
A few days after Wadoo held a football coaching camp in Srinagar, in the summer of 2016, Burhan Wani was killed by the Indian Army, leading to the months-long unrest and curfew in the Valley.
Meanwhile, Kashmir football's resurgence was about to receive another shot in the arm.
A few years ago, Shamim Meraj — the editor of Kashmir Monitor — aspired to create "the East Bengal of north India”; for this, he joined up with a friend — Sandip Chattoo.
Meraj is the president of Real Kashmir FC, which started its journey in professional football with the 128th Durand Cup, in 2016. They may not have had any remarkable achievements in their debut tournament, but they were able to establish a 'route map'.
They got a coach and manager in David Robertson, who played for Aberdeen, Rangers, Leeds United, Montrose and the Scotland national team, and had managed clubs like Elgin City, Montrose and Phoenix FC after retiring.
Under Robertson, Real Kashmir FC's ambitions took flight; they soared. Robertson took the team to Scotland so they could gain more experience.
In the group stages of their fist I-League second division tourney, Real Kashmir FC placed third. In their second season, the introduction of two foreign players helped: captain Loveday Enyinnaya, and forward Yao Kouassi Bernard. Enyinnaya, an experienced Nigerian defender, started his career in India with Malabar United FC in 2010, and had an incredible season with Minerva Punjab FC when the team became the first-ever north Indian side to be I-League first division champions in 2017-18. Ivory Coast's Kouassi Bernard Yao helped his Real Kashmir FC teammates shock opponents, and they flew back from Bengaluru to the Valley — with the title of 'champions' and a ticket to the next year's I-League first division.
Robertson’s discovery of the local boys, Muhammad Hammad, Danish Farooq and Ritwik Kumar Das was also crucial in the team’s title hunt; midfielders Danish and Ritwik were on the top scorers’ list, while Hammad partnered with Loveday and Abhash Thapa to mount the most vigorous defence seen in the tournament. The Kashmiri side also secured goals through Atinder Mani, Ifham Tariq, Koassi Yao, and. Danish Farooq — son of legendary footballer Farooq Ahmed Bhat, former hero of Mohammedan SC — set the game in the middle.
Nadong Bhutia was another big catch for the team, from Minerva Punjab. Even though he couldn’t appear in a single match for the Punjab side after joining in the middle of the last season, he seemed to be the saviour for the Kashmiris in the final rounds. Bhutia, who appeared only in the three final round matches, netted two goals. Real Kashmir FC paved his comeback after injury-troubled years.
The 21st century’s second decade has seen a new dawn for football in the Valley. The contribution of professional clubs like Lonestar Kashmir FC and Real Kashmir FC to reviving football culture, cannot be emphasised enough. Last season, the TRC Turf Ground of Srinagar — home ground for both I-League clubs from Kashmir — witnessed the highest spectator turnout after Jamshedpur, in the second division I-League.
Labelled 'violent' by outsiders, Kashmir is attempting to make itself over into a football paradise; the many amateur or semi-professional footballers at its helm work as daily wage labourers once they take off their cleats. During curfews, they must get through checkpoints before they can get to practice. During shutdowns, they miss their games altogether. The one available stadium in their home state is shared by other teams as well, so some practice sessions take place in neighbourhood parks that have no goalposts, or grass.
The determination of the payers of Real Kashmir FC has brought them to where they are now, as they script history for others footballers from their state. On 15 December, as an independent club from Kashmir, they will walk through the same tunnels of the EMS Stadium in Kozhikode, where Abdul Majeed Kakroo played his last match as captain.
Football in Kashmir has climbed out of its valley, and is now ascending a mountain. The summit, now, is well in sight.
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