Real Kashmir FC: The journey from the streets to the biggest pitches of India
If there's one thing that takes the mind of the people of Jammu and Kashmir away from the tension surrounding the troubled state, it's football. And the progress of one of their clubs - Real Kashmir FC - into I-League, the top division of the country, provides a message of hope for the entire state.
But their journey hasn't been as rosy as it seems.
After the devastating floods of 2014, a group of children gathered together at a small public park at Sanat Nagar, the only patch of land in the city that was not inundated, for a game of football.
Shamim Mehraj, an Uptown resident and a newspaper editor, noticed that these children were shooed away by a couple of other citizens and were told that the roads were no place to play football.
That was when an idea struck the youngster. He decided to start a football club along with his friend Sandeep Chattoo - a football club that would go on to be the first team from Jammu and Kashmir to feature in the I-League.
The club came to shape in March 2016. Shamim was able to recruit a handful of players in a state with a decreasing population.
Starting a club in Kashmir was no easy task, poor infrastructure and the political turmoil gives little to no scope for development.
But it was the joy and pleasure of playing the game that kept the boys going. “Dribbling football from one pole to the other was making us happy. Also, it was keeping us physically fit,” Shamim said.
They soon gained recognition and participated in local tournaments where they learned new things about the game, had a good experience of a tournament and recruited new players. Slowly the club grew in numbers both in terms of the players and staff as well as local support.
National Tournaments and First I-League season
As the support grew for the amateur club, many supporters persuaded the club to go professional as they believed that Real Kashmir FC now had the skill, experience and staff to win bigger tournaments.
So amidst unrest in the local state, they flew to Delhi to participate in the Durand Cup, one of the oldest competitions in India. They played three matches in the Durand Cup before getting knocked out.
The likes of IAF and the Army's football team proved too strong for Kashmir team. However, they had gained social recognition which encouraged them to take a big step. They decided to take part in the II division I-League.
The I-League is one of the most prestigious tournaments in India and success in the II division would soon see them on the big stage alongside the likes of Churchill Brothers and Minerva Punjab.
But their first season would be one to forget. They won three and lost three and failed to qualify for the final round (top two teams from each group qualify for the final round).
This was a humbling experience for Shamim and co. as they learnt that it will take more than just one year and a lot more money to build this club to a level where they can truly be an Asian powerhouse.
Champions - II Division I-League
After barely missing out on the finals round in their maiden season of the I-League Division 2, Real Kashmir got serious.
They knew they had the right talent within the club but just lacked the guidance. A veteran footballer, David Robertson from Scotland, and Jimmy Lindsey, his assistant, were tasked to train and coach the young guys.
They were shocked to see the inferior infrastructure as people lived without internet and the roads were in a state of shutdown.
But the coach continued to train the team well despite challenges in terms of resources, weather and infrastructure.
Real Kashmir FC was invited by Stenhousemuir Football Club to play a pre-season friendly at their stadium in Larbert Scotland in July 2017.
As the invitation came, the real worry was the cost of air-tickets. So one of the promoters actually contributed half of the cumulative ticket cost. All three friendlies in one week ended in draws.
This was a huge positive for the club as it was their first foreign opposition. This, in turn, boosted the confidence of all players and Real Kashmir FC was ready to pose themselves as solid contenders in the 2017-18 season fo the second division of I-League.
Real Kashmir FC went unbeaten in 13 games and finished ahead of 17 other teams to be crowned champions of the I-League II Division 2017-18. This included seven wins and six draws. The once-amateur club from Kashmir had achieved the impossible. They defied all odds and won the second division, in turn, earning a promotion to one of the most prestigious tournaments of the country, the I-League.
What lies ahead
After qualifying for the premier league in the country, a tough task lies ahead for Real Kashmir FC. Performances are not their only problem, but problems such as infrastructure and financial aid could arise.
A rough estimate shows that the Real Kashmir FC will have to bear a cost of Rs 2 crore in order to play in the I-League. The management is planning to sign some professional foreign players to elevate the team standards.
The team has only one ground in Srinagar where they can play with inadequate resources. The TRC Turf Ground, the club's home ground for the upcoming I-League season which boasts of an imported synthetic turf, had nothing else to offer for the longest time and is now being spruced up. The facility, however, is yet to receive clearance from officials as a venue to host I-League matches.
'The Snow Leopards' have had a mixed pre-season. In August 2018 Real Kashmir youth team travelled Germany for pre-season training with one of the best football club in the world Borussia Dortmund.
They visited there training centres where official BVB or Borussia Dortmund team trains. They also visited their famous stadium Westfalenstadion. However, the Real Kashmir team lost 2-0 to ISL giants, Mumbai City FC as a part of their pre-season campaign.
Real Kashmir FC starts its campaign on October 31 when they take on defending I-League champions, Minerva Punjab at TAU Devi Lal Stadium Chandigarh. They will have their first home game against Churchill Brothers on November 6.
The I-League is a huge step for the club and many fans wonder if they will be able to keep up financially as well as in terms of quality. However, club owner, Shamim Meraj thinks otherwise. “It is highly competitive now. We have to have the best skills, talent and lot of money,” Shamim said.
“We are trying our best to have an honourable tally, this season when a Kashmir team will play in I-League for the first time in history.” Only time will tell how the first club from Jammu and Kashmir will rank in their maiden I-League season.
But the story of the club from their roots till making it big is an inspiration to football teams across the world and gives hope to all Indians that slowly but surely India is becoming a football powerhouse and the beautiful game will soon be as popular as cricket, if not take over cricket, over the coming years.