The arclights glowed, and perched on the custom-made upholstery, the who's who of Real Kashmir Football Club basked in their reflected refulgence. The club's dream debut in I-league last season unleashed an incredible outpouring of hope and optimism across the Valley, not to forget a BAFTA-winning documentary.
Unsurprisingly then, cliches flew thick and fast, and passivity passed off as positivity. At one instance, team unity and increased concentration were jokingly tossed around as the bright sides of the communication blockade that ironically, completed its 100 days the very day. However, here's the thing: Strip the fluff, trim the flab, shed the mask, and a fairytale underdog tale still remains a fairytale underdog tale - even in the times of stifling majoritarianism and market-induced bubble of self-aggrandisement.
Much has changed since Real Kashmir's dream debut last season. The state no longer has a special status, nor are its boundaries the same. The ever-challenged lines of communication have, literally and metaphorically, morphed beyond redemption, and a tidal wave of suspicion has swept, what the real Kashmiris would sheepishly call, the mainland. Hell, the league itself is no longer the premier national competition.
In times like these, perhaps it is pragmatic for a Kashmiri to be circumspect. Muhammad Hammad, a downtown Srinagar native and club's lead defender, had practised his lines well. "We are professional footballers," he said at the launch of Real Kashmir's home jersey by Adidas.
Hammad, like his statemates in the club, came to know of the blockade when he joined the squad in Kolkata for the Durand Cup in August.
"We were slightly worried, but it was alright. The team is a family, and the boys look out for each other," he said, before dropping that "professional footballer" line again.
The next day, they scrapped to a 1-0 win over Chennayin FC, and after the match, the Kashmiri boys in the team broke down. "Some of us got very emotional. We had not spoken to our families for two days, and it was really worrying. We know the situation there, and we know we have a job to do on the field. It is not easy at times, but we are professional footballers and we must get the job done."
Hammad could not speak to his mother — who he talks to before every game for good wishes — for ten straight days. The blackout was disconcerting. "Yeah, not being able to speak to my mother was tough, but we have to take such things in our stride."
Co-owner Sandeep Chattoo was more forthright. "The players are aware of the political situation there. They know the youth is in despair, and that's why they want to bring some hope and cheer to the people of Kashmir. This season is for the unreal fans of Real Kashmir," he said.
"None of the players ever complain. We are a very close-knit unit, and everyone is emotionally attached to each other. It is one of our biggest strengths," Chattoo added.
It is a fact that coach David Robertson swears by. Having guided the club from absolute oblivion to global acknowledgement, the Scotsman ranks team's togetherness over their technical skills.
Robertson's association with the club goes back to their Division 2 days. By his own admission, when he took charge of the team in January 2017, he had no hopes. Brick by brick, he created a team that came to revel in togetherness. A year later, they made it to the top tier of I-League. Robertson said he would have been happy had they avoided relegation; they ended the league in third place, winning hearts, matches, and fans.
"We are very close to each other. Almost 80 percent of the players are retained, which is unusual for an Indian team. Everybody knows each other; there is good togetherness. They don't need to be motivated; they know what they are playing for and who they are playing for," the 51-year-old said.
The team has had a four-month-long pre-season — Roberston thinks is the longest in world football — during which they played against several teams from the Indian Super League (ISL). The idea has been to improve attack and create more goal-scoring opportunities.
"Last season, we were way superior in defence as compared to other teams, but we did not score many goals. So this time, we would like to get more balls in the box. We have some great games and we travelled a lot — Haryana, Kolkata, Jamshedpur, Goa, you name it...So I think we are well prepared," he added.
"The players are mentally very strong. Nothing fazes them, nothing stops them. They never make any excuses about heat, cold, internet...they are thorough professionals. We want to go as high as we can."
Chattoo, meanwhile, had no reservations in announcing that his team is aiming for the title this season. "We finished third last season, so obviously we would like to finish higher this time. We will be gunning for the trophy from the very first match," he said.
Last season, in the wake of Pulwama attacks, Minerva Punjab FC refused to travel to Srinagar despite AIFF's assurance on security. Later, Real Kashmir's home game against East Bengal was moved to New Delhi. With the valley simmering in lockdown post the abrogation of Article 370, a repeat cannot be ruled out.
"That will be just an excuse not to play us," countered Chattoo. "When Minerva did not turn up last year, we posted pictures of Srinagar and how it was. The match referee was there, our team was there, there were six thousand fans sitting in the stadium. We had to stop 7000-8000 people from getting in the ground because they would then go crazy. We tried our best to convince Minerva to come and play."
"If any team refuses to come and play there, it means they don't trust the police and people of their own country. We are not going to Gaza to play a match. We have nine foreigners (six players and three coaches), and we have players from all over the country. If anyone is uncomfortable, please come and talk to these people to know how they feel here."
While the co-owner did not reveal a Plan B in case teams do not travel to Srinagar, he did assure of serving a similar treatment to other teams.
"We will make sure the matches take place. If teams still refuse, we will also refuse to go to other places."
"Last year when we went to the Northeast, there was a curfew there just two days prior to our visit. We did not raise any issue about it. When we went to Kerala, one day prior to our arrival, there was a complete shutdown there. The day we were scheduled to practice, there was no transport available and we could not practice. So what's the difference between a shutdown in Kashmir and one in Kerala? It just gets blown out of proportion. There are problems everywhere. If something happens in Kolkata due to the political tension, we won't say we don't want to play East Bengal. This is sports, and we are professionals. It is the responsibility of the government to provide security and assurance to the clubs."
The latest edition of I-League will kick off on 30 November, with Real Kashmir expected to open their campaign on 3 December. Their first home game is provisionally scheduled on 12 December. Chatto is expecting a full house at TRC Stadium.
"It will be quite a sight."
For coach Roberston, it will be another season of emotional highs and lows, one where he has to make do with long communication gaps with his family while devising on-field strategies. However, for now, he wishes to enjoy it while it lasts.
"I was here when the club started. The players had no training kits and they used to bring their own footballs. I could have left after the success of last year, but it is like my second home. At some point, either I'll be sacked or I'll move on, but I want to stay here long enough and enjoy the experience." And so, in blockades and lockdowns, the fairytale finds a way to live on.
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Updated Date: Nov 13, 2019 14:53:13 IST