As a teenager, Sajid Yousuf Dar played football in Kashmir during curfew breaks at the height of militancy. Now, the 42-year-old Dar’s dedication to the game has earned him a third stint as head coach of the Indian women’s football team for the South Asian Federation Games.
Dar is also the first and only Kashmiri so far to coach any Indian soccer team for international events.
In the last week of November, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) appointed Dar as coach of the women’s national football team for the upcoming SAFF women’s championship 2016.
Dar told HT that the team was gearing up for the championship, which is slated to kick-off in Siliguri from December 26. Defending champions India have been placed in Group B along with Bangladesh and Afghanistan. A total of seven countries are taking part in the competition.
“We have to be on our toes to defend the title as more and more countries in the region are working and developing their game,” Dar, who is currently in Srinagar, says.
Owing to his impressive record as coach for the under-14 and under-19 boys’ soccer teams of the country, Dar was first roped in by the AIFF for the women’s team in March 2015 when ahead of the Olympic qualifiers. He was also chosen as the technical advisor for football development in India.
Under his guidance the women’s team got gold in the 12th South Asian Games earlier this year in Shillong. “The AIFF provided us with the facilities and we had enough time to prepare leading to our success. I am proud that our women’s team got gold. The men’s team had to settle for silver,” he says.
Dar has come a long way since the time he started playing football in Shri Pratap (SP) higher secondary school in 1991-92.
This was the time when militancy had just erupted in Kashmir and youth were crossing the line of control in hordes for arms training fuelled by the idea of “freedom from Indian rule”. The violence derailed all developmental work and virtually stopped sports activities.
But it didn’t quite deter Dar, then 18, from pursuing his first love. “I was mad about the game. Despite the bad situation all around a few friends and I continued to practice in the otherwise empty grounds,” he says.
In fact football is in his blood. His father Mohammad Yousuf was the first Kashmiri to play any international game for the Indian team.
But pursuing the game with violence all around was never easy for Dar junior. Owing to the violence and mass protests, curfew used to be imposed for days at a stretch in the early 1990s.
“They would give relaxation for a few hours and I would rush to the ground to play,” Dar remembers.
In fact, young men in Kashmir fancied football more than cricket before the start of militancy. Abdul Majid Kakroo was the first Kashmiri to captain the Indian squad in 1986-87 and played for the national team for nine years.
A resident of Dalgate in the heart of Srinagar, Dar was fortunate that there were at least three grounds near his home where he could hone his skills.
Dar’s perseverance finally paid and he captained Srinagar’s YMCA team in the Federation Cup in 1998 held at Chandigarh and later represented state in the Santosh Trophy three times from 2000 to 2002.
“It was only after playing outside the state that I realized how absence of professional coaches was hampering game in our state,” he says.
He started training youngsters and went for different coaching courses, AFC licenses and degrees in physical education and also started coaching Kashmir University team since 2006. “My first break at national level came in 2012 when I was chosen as assistant coach by AIFF for the under-19 boys’ team,” he says.
Since then, Dar has not looked back.