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Kashmir moves the goalposts, finds a reason to step out amid strife

The 26 Dec Real Kashmir-Chennai City match was the first big sporting event in J&K since Article 370 was repealed

Real Kashmir FC play Punjab FC at the TRC stadium in Srinagar. Football offers residents an escape from the grinding reality of everyday life in the Valley.
Real Kashmir FC play Punjab FC at the TRC stadium in Srinagar. Football offers residents an escape from the grinding reality of everyday life in the Valley. (Photo: Abid Bhat/Mint)

Danish Farooq passes the ball to Gnohere Krizo. Krizo moves it closer to the goal area. Three Punjab FC opponents tail him. “Go Krizo", “Go Real Kashmir" chants warm Srinagar’s TRC stadium despite the -2° Celsius temperature. Krizo takes a second touch and scores a goal for Real Kashmir FC. The 2,000-odd spectators burst into cheers, jumping and dancing.

Rashid Ahmed, 26, cannot hold back tears of joy. Sitting in the stands with his wife, their four-year-old daughter on his lap wrapped in a blanket, he says he has never missed a Real Kashmir match in the Valley. “Everyone here in the stadium is so happy. Inside it is always like this when there is a match, so much joy. How can we miss this?" asks Ahmed, who took a day off from work on 10 January to watch Real Kashmir’s third home match in the ongoing season of I-League, India’s top football league.

Ahmed also missed work on 26 December to watch, along with his wife and child, the home team play defending champions Chennai City FC, which was the first big sporting event in the Valley since the abrogation of Article 370 on 5 August. “After August, we stopped stepping out of the house. Phones, internet, nothing was working. It was safer being at home. On 26 December, we came out for the first time together. In those 90 minutes, we laughed and we cried," says Ahmed. Real Kashmir won 2-0.

For people in Kashmir, where life is strained by heavy troop presence and an armed insurgency, watching and playing football is more than a source of entertainment or “time pass". It offers an escape from the grinding reality of everyday life in the Valley.

Kashmir’s love for football is well known. It is not uncommon to see boys and girls dribbling the ball, rather than hitting it with a bat—preferred in many parts of the country—in the nooks and crannies of the Valley. Elders share tales of how they would climb the tall chinar trees around stadiums to watch matches in the 1980s and ’90s and spend hours in harsh winters playing football.

It is more than a sport here. It is, as 13-year-old Farooq fan Mohammad Majtaba Pandit puts it, “a reason to step out", or as 21-year-old Bhat Zaira offers, “a reason to cheer", or as Mehak Majeed, 9, adds, “a reason to dream". Her father, Abdul, 42, pulls it all together with: “A reason to forget everything for a moment and be together."

When hotelier Sandeep Chattoo and Shamim Meraj, editor of the local newspaper, The Kashmir Monitor, formed Real Kashmir as a community initiative in 2016 to engage children growing up in a land punctuated by patrolled, barricaded streets, they were not aware that it was the start of a sporting revolution.

“After the 2014 floods, there was nothing to do for young boys. We knew they needed an outlet for their energy, else many of them would end up throwing stones. So, we distributed footballs in several areas and from there we got the idea of forming a team and taking part in local competitions," says Chattoo.

The interest was tremendous and the small team became the first professional Kashmiri club to be promoted to the I-League and the first Indian club to sign a kit sponsorship deal with sportswear brand Adidas.

A day after the 10 January match, Real Kashmir’s coach David Robertson, a former left back for Scottish clubs Aberdeen and Rangers, said the team, which includes players from Africa and the UK, started its journey with no expectations. “We just wanted to play, get more experience, and we did better than expected. This is our third season now (13th season of the I-League) and people now expect more," he says.

Robertson admits that the challenges have been more than usual for his team. “We realize we are living in an unstable political climate. It was especially tough for us when the internet was gone, but we have persisted."

Before every away match Farooq, 21, has the habit of calling his mother to seek her blessings. On 22 August, before playing Goa FC at Kalyani stadium outside Kolkata, he couldn’t. “We landed in Kolkata and I tried calling her, but couldn’t. It was a very difficult time. Had it not been for the support of my team, I don’t know how I would have managed," he says.

For Farooq, joining the team was “a natural thing" because both his father and uncle were zonal-level players. “More than that, this game has become a way of hope for Kashmir, a way to bring everyone together, happy together."

English winger Kallum M. Higginbotham, on the other hand, was sceptical about coming to Real Kashmir. “I had heard a lot about the violence, so, of course, I had reservations. But I also wanted to play in India," says the 31-year-old UK resident. “When I came here, I saw army personnel with guns around the city. It was not a normal sight, but now I’m used to it. It makes me feel safer."

Even Adidas thought hard before supporting the team. “As a country, we are cynical. Anything with a socially or politically charged environment we look at with a narrow lens. However, as a brand, we believed the team had the potential and it really does. It has impressed everyone across the world. The story of these boys needs to be told," says Adidas’ brand director, Sharad Singla.

It is not just the boys, though. Women of Kashmir, too, are taking up the sport professionally.

Sajid Yousuf Dar, the former head coach of the national women’s football team, has formed teams in eight districts of Jammu and Kashmir, including Srinagar, Pulwama and Jammu, as well as Ladakh, that have about 200 women players, aged 9-29. “Young girls are so committed to the sport and learning that they don’t even leave the ground sometimes. They play in snow too," laughs Dar. “What makes me happy is parents pushing their girls to take up football. It was unheard of four-five years ago."

With the support of the government, Dar plans to expand to 22 districts. The Jammu and Kashmir team participated in the 2018 Indian Women’s League. “We did not win any game, but the exposure was essential for the girls to take the game more seriously."

Iynan Gulam Mohammed, 21, a bachelor’s student at Women’s College, has been Dar’s student and part of the State Academy of Kashmir’s team for the past two years. “We want to change the way people look at Kashmir and Kashmiri women. We are taking our traditions with us to the modern way of life. They say Kashmiri women do not step out of the house, they do not wear make-up, they do not study much, they do not play sports. We do everything and more. I want to become a footballer so that I can inspire other girls to do what they want to do," says Iynan, who credits her parents for encouraging her take up the sport.

Iynan was in the stands, wearing a mustard pheran and jumping with a Real Kashmir poster when Krizo scored earlier this month. “I came to learn the technique of the players, especially Krizo’s. His legwork is phenomenal," says Iynan, who, like Rashid Ahmed, has not missed any of the Real Kashmir matches. “Here, we are all equal."

The Real Kashmir and Punjab match ended in a 1-1 draw.

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