The Kashmiri football fairy tale
- Real Kashmir’s unlikely success story has helped put the state on the country’s footballing map
- Adidas recently released a 2- minute film on Real Kashmir, and the Rangoli Metro Art Centre, Bengaluru, is featuring a special photo exhibition
In the popular Indian imagination, Kashmir exists not as a place but as a political battleground. The images that pop up in most people’s heads are of guns, shutdowns and clashes on the streets. But the players and owners of Real Kashmir FC are looking to change that by turning the conflict-torn state into an Indian footballing powerhouse.
Since its inception in 2016, the club’s rise has been meteoric. Last May it became the first Kashmiri club to be promoted to the I-League, India’s top professional football league. In November, it added another feather to its cap by becoming the first Indian club to sign a kit sponsorship deal with sportswear firm Adidas. And with less than half of their debut I-league season left, the Snow Leopards—as they are affectionately called—are firmly ensconced in the third place, just five points behind leaders Chennai City.
“After the floods in 2014, my friend Shamim wanted to do something for the boys to keep them engaged because there was nothing to do in Srinagar," says hotelier Sandeep Chattoo, who owns the club along with Shamim Meraj, editor of the local newspaper, The Kashmir Monitor. The duo bought some footballs and handed them out, aiming to give young children a productive way to pass the time. “That developed into the idea of forming a small team to take part in local competitions, because the interest was tremendous."
By 2016, this community initiative had transformed into a professional football club, with permission from the All India Football Federation to compete in the second division of the I-League. As head coach, Meraj brought in 50-year-old Scotsman David Robertson, a former left-back for Scottish clubs Aberdeen and Rangers. Having coached in the US for 10 years, Robertson was looking for a new challenge. “It was a new club, we had no idea how far it could go," says Robertson. “It seemed exciting at the time so I just took the plunge."
There were initial hiccups—Robertson almost left after his first two days in Srinagar saw a snowstorm, power cuts and an internet blackout—but he quickly realized that the valley didn’t lack in footballing talent. They just needed the opportunity to play and learn from better, experienced opposition. In 2017, he took the team to Scotland for pre-season training, an eye-opening experience for the players. These efforts paid off in May, when Real Kashmir grimly hung on to a 3-2 lead to beat New Delhi club Hindustan and win promotion to the I-League.
“It was like a dream come true," says 30-year-old midfielder Khalid Qayoom. “We won the second division, and with a team from our home state. We won hearts and minds. It still feels like a dream."
Bolstered by more international and non-Kashmiri players—including Robertson’s son Mason, a centre back—the team has kept to winning ways in the top league, including a momentous away victory against Mohun Bagan. These achievements are even more impressive considering the number of challenges faced by the club and the team—regular curfews and shutdowns, inclement weather, the lack of infrastructure and training facilities.
“We didn’t know how the security situation would be," says Chattoo. “But we had this belief that every Kashmiri loves football, and. if given a chance, nobody would oppose the idea of these matches being held in Kashmir. And we were right."
The club’s success has won it many fans, with over 25,000 people turning up to watch its home games. Adidas recently released a 2- minute film on Real Kashmir, and the Rangoli Metro Art Centre, Bengaluru, is featuring a special photo exhibition (till 27 January) by adman and street photographer Prashant Godbole, documenting the stories of the club and the players. As they prepare for an important home game against league leaders Chennai City on 28 January, it seems all eyes are on the club and on Kashmir.
“It has been an amazing journey," says Chattoo. “Our club has given people in Kashmir a sense of positivity and a reason to smile, which is amazing in itself. That’s what keeps us going."