Football in Kashmir – How Imtiyaz Ahmed Khan is freestyling Lolab valley back into people’s hearts

When football is an expression
When football is an expression

Imtiyaz Ahmed Khan doesn’t remember when he decided to become a freestyle footballer. “I used to practice watching videos on YouTube and after a while I had young kids asking me to teach these tricks,” he explains fondly.

The question should be why instead of when, he reminds me.

“After my stints at football clubs, I had returned home for a break and then the lockdown started,” he says.

Unlike the rest of India, Imtiyaz’s lockdown started in 2019 following the revocation of Article 370 by the Centre. Political uproar stifled the valley as groups protested the decision and the state invoked a lockdown to curb potential violence.

Away from football clubs and isolated from the world without the internet, Imtiyaz found hope in a football he had brought back to his home in Cheepora village of Lolab valley, just a few miles away from the Line Of Control (LOC) in the Kupwara district.

“Football is my one true love and I knew I had to keep my mind away from all that was going on around me,” says the 22-year-old footballer about the lockdown that prompted his foray into the world of freestyle football. “It makes everyone happy and this was the only game I could play alone.”

With his Instagram page slowly garnering interest in the football circles – world renowned freestyle Ahmed Rakaba being one such fan -- Imtiyaz now dreams of a career in freestyle.

Even Ahmed Rakaba is impressed!
Even Ahmed Rakaba is impressed!
“We keep hearing only about foreign freestylers. I want to be known as an Indian freestyler and represent the nation,” he explains.

A dream, he adds, that is quite different from what it used to be a few years back.

The long road

In 2015, news of a young Imtiyaz being selected to practice with Real Kashmir Football Club's Under-15 side had invoked a mixed reaction at his home.

His father Benyameen Khan, a farmer in the village, was his first support staff, having saved up money to buy the boy's first football despite not knowing much about the sport. But Benyameen did not anticipate his son pursuing a career in this alien sport.

To make matters worse, Srinagar, where Real Kashmir was based, was 130km away from Cheepora and required Imtiyaz to change to three different buses to reach.

“The practice matches were held around 4pm so I would start by 10 in the morning. And I would reach back home at around 10-11 in the night,” he says.

There was the chance that one could be attacked by a wild animal. Army camps in the region, constantly scouting for militant activities, also added to the tension.

“I struggled really hard to become a footballer because we had no facility here,” he explains.

There were very few career options for his fellow villagers. Most joined the army. Some lucky ones got the occasional government jobs. And the others are farmers.

READ: Football through the eyes of Jammu & Kashmir coaches

Imtiyaz, like the occasional shooting star that visits the brightly lit Himalayan skies that envelopes Lolab, chose to travel a different path.

A new hope for Imtiyaz

After his attempts to break into the Real Kashmir team failed, he moved to Chandigarh to join as an intern at Minerva Punjab.

“It was very difficult for me. I started playing with no coaching or no ground. I could not match the city boys,” he explains, pointing out how Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi compilations were his original football tutors.

It was at Minerva that Imtiyaz first developed a passion for freestyle. For hours, when the main team rested, he would try out dribbles and trick shots at the multiple grounds at the I-League winners’ academy.

Despite putting in a lot of effort, working part-time with the club to cover his food and accommodation costs, Imtiyaz could not make it to the main team. He shifted back to Kashmir where he had another unsuccessful stint at Lonestar FC.

Disappointed yet unwilling to give up, Imtiyaz returned to Cheepora, hoping an opportunity would come his way. That was until the political turmoil took his mobile internet connection away. The shooting star inside him slowly started fizzling out.

A star is born

“You need something to keep youngsters here away from drugs or other influences,” says Imtiyaz about his passionate promotion of the sport in the valley. What happened in the two years when his world shut down has made him understand the issues that haunt his home town.

Being the closest district to the India-Pakistan border, there was extreme tension in the region during the lockdown. The army personnel moved around all day long and the villagers restricted themselves to specific regions to stay away from trouble.

In freestyle, Imtiyaz found a way to stay connected with football without the need for a ground. In his little tricks and small videos, the villagers found a welcome respite.

A symbiotic relationship started to flourish in troubled times with 22-year-old Imtiaz becoming the face of Cheepora’s frantic attempt to bring some normalcy, albeit superficially. Freedom within curfews, crackdowns and lockdowns. An opportunity to express, and to smile wholeheartedly.

Despite not earning a single rupee from the videos, Imtiyaz today is a hope for youngsters and a source of fun for the elders. A cheer that resonates in an often forgotten valley.

Lolab waits

Your springs and lakes with water pulsating and quivering like quicksilver, the morning birds fluttering about the sky, agitated and in turmoil, O Valley of Lolab! - Urdu poet Muhammad Iqbal

Lolab Valley
Lolab Valley

Stunning landscapes, crystal clear springs and pine forests define the Lolab valley. Yet it’s people wait in hope for the day it becomes a tourist attraction. The Hindi film industry often used the location for picturesque videos in the past and there was a peak in tourism activities in the late 80s and early 90s.

Lolab Valley in the music video featuring Rishi Kapoor and Jaya Prada from the film Sargam (1979)
Lolab Valley in the music video featuring Rishi Kapoor and Jaya Prada from the film Sargam (1979)

But the Valley’s proximity to the volatile India-Pakistan border has meant a dwindling numbers of tourists. Imtiyaz hopes his freestyle videos, often shot with a backdrop of Lolab’s serene lakes and green meadows, will also attract visitors to the land he calls "heaven".

Imtiyaz Ahmed Khan was born on September 11th, 1998, almost a year before the Kargil war. Despite having no memories of the incident, stories from elders and friends have painted visuals of the war in his head.

One story in particular still haunts him. The valley, the elders said, used to be an abode for some of the rarest species of animals in the world, including the Snow Leopard. But the day the army came marching into the borders, they vanished.

Nobody knows where these animals went to. Yet everyone in Cheepora lives in hope that one day they will return.

Young Imtiyaz relates to the hope. He says it is a binding feeling across the valley. Like a family around a fireplace on a cold winter night. Some wait for tourists. Some for better yield in their fruit farms. Imtiyaz waits for better football opportunities.

The journey towards becoming a well-known freestyler has just started for Imtiyaz. He knows only if the sports council intervenes will he and other passionate Kashmiris be able to achieve anything big in football.

Imtiyaz waits in hope for that day. Until then, he hopes to continue on his mission to bring his beautiful village into the limelight and win people’s hearts across the country.

READ: An upskilling workshop for Jammu and Kashmir football coaches amidst lockdown

Edited by Rohit Mishra
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