I-League 2018-19: Real Kashmir's Shahnawaz Bashir's journey from dodging curfews to playing in top division

New Delhi: Real Kashmir beats Hindustan. Read that again, slowly. You get the drift. For a state that has been the nerve-centre of much of India's internal and external affairs since its accession to the Union of India, dealing with semantics and subtext is hardly a big deal. However, if you are from, what many in the state would call, mainland, the importance of innuendo is there to be felt.

In May this year, when David Robertson's wards eked out a 3-2 win over the Delhi-based Hindustan FC, they not only made the veritable giant leap in the echelons of country's domestic football but more importantly, reaffirmed the essence of sport itself – belief.

 I-League 2018-19: Real Kashmirs Shahnawaz Bashirs journey from dodging curfews to playing in top division

Shahnawaz Bashir (bottom row, 3rd from L) will feature for Real Kashmir in the 2018-19 I-League.

At the launch of the upcoming season of I-League, when players of every other team were greeted with perfunctory claps, Srinagar's Shahnawaz Bashir and Nigeria's Loveday Enyinnaya, representing Real Kashmir, elicited excited cheers and thunderous applause. It was a moment that had neither drama nor poignancy, just a fleeting feeling of honesty about it. And, of course, a ready reminder that everybody loves a good underdog.

Talk to Bashir though, and the strapping young man barely betrays any air of pusillanimity. He dreams of winning trophies and exceeding expectations. He talks of playing on frozen grounds and practising on curfewed days. If sport has the power to derange, it certainly has Bashir in its thrall. But then, what's football without its crazed and dazed children?

"There is a player called Xavi Hernandez. Have you heard of him? I like his game a lot; he is my favourite. I like his passing ability, ball control, and awesome ball-supplying abilities," he says. That Bashir has followed the Spanish magician's midfield prowess amid intermittent internet and erratic electricity is a wonder in itself.

Bashir took to football at school and soon figured out that The Beautiful Game was his calling. His father, who runs a cooking gas business, was an aspiring footballer in his youth and he supported his son in his pursuit.

"My mother wanted to push me in studies, but she is now very proud of me. In fact, all my family is eagerly waiting for me to play in Srinagar so that they can come to see me," says Bashir who is employed with the state's Comptroller and Auditor General department.

"Football has always had a big following in Kashmir and people have a lot of love for the game. I am expecting a full house on home games."

I-League's chairman Subrata Dutta echoes the sentiment. "Football is the opium of the masses in Kashmir. People eat, sleep, and drink football there," he said.

The team trains in Srinagar's TRC ground that has valley's only artificial turf. In winter months, Bashir and his team train in snowfall and sub-zero temperatures.

"It gets really tough. Water freezes in taps and we have to pour warm water on supply pipes to get drinking water. There's snow and rain, and of course, you know the political climate there. But we are used to overcoming tough situations," he says.

"There was an earthquake in 2005, floods in 2015, and there's violence...it makes you mentally tough. Somehow, I never let the passion die and never allowed anything to affect my game. These are things that you learn to live with if you are coming from a conflict zone."

The Kashmir valley has been on the boil over the past few years, with incidents of stone-pelting and blockades recurring with alarming frequency. Though Bashir stays in Srinagar's Sathu Barbar Shah area, which he says is a calm neighbourhood, the tense situation does affect his practice. The young footballer, however, generally finds a way to skirt past the security cover.

"We do not stop practice due to cold or climatic conditions. However, things are different during curfews. Sometimes, we request the army to let us go, and they oblige. Otherwise, we stealthily take a ferry and go via Chunt Kul rivulet, avoiding the security cover. I know it's dangerous, but the allure of the football field is just too much," he says.

"I think these hardships make you a tougher person. All the Kashmiri boys in the team are mentally very strong."

AIFF general secretary Kushal Das feels Kashmir's representation in the league was long overdue. "It is in line with our vision of making I-League a pan-India league. Also, it will help the youth in Kashmir as it gives them a platform to play. Besides the political significance, it is important to remember that Kashmir has historically contributed to the growth of Indian football. So yes, it was overdue," he told Firstpost.

Real Kashmir's phenomenal run in the second division of I-League means Bashir is no longer a stranger on the streets of Srinagar and he understands the larger importance of his stature.

"People throng the stadium during our practice sessions. It feels nice to be recognised. They look up to me because they see me on national television and they know that I will be playing in a national league. I would like the youth to take inspiration from whatever I have done and take up sports. They should make full use of this platform and look to play for big clubs, and later for India."

Real Kashmir's footballing philosophy will be dictated by coach Roberstson's all-out attack play and high-pressing tactics.

"We will play fast and attacking football. Our coach doesn't believe in slowly building up the game; he believes in creating early pressure to get results. We will mostly play 4-2-3-1 formation and look to attack at all times," he says.

The team had a two-and-a-half-month pre-season build-up where they also travelled to Mumbai and played Indian Super League team Mumbai City FC.

"That was a very good experience. We played a lot of matches, and it also helped the players to know each other. We then had a short break before reassembling. As of now, our preparations are 90 percent, but we will be ready in time.

"The competition will be very tough, but our coach has a lot of plans and strategies in mind, and we are fine-tuning them. So Inshallah, we will perform well. Also, it will not be easy for visiting teams to play in Srinagar's biting cold. It will not be easy for others to beat us," Bashir says.

The latest edition of I-League will kick off on 26 October, and Real Kashmir will open their campaign against defending champions Minerva on 31 of this month.

Updated Date: Oct 24, 2018 09:16:58 IST