The first thing you notice as you reach the vicinity of the Bakshi Stadium in Srinagar — the venue of this year's national football championship, the Santosh Trophy - is the sea of khaki and green that symbolises the presence of the armed forces across the world.
The second thing you notice is that it is very quiet, almost eerily so.
The 10 or so armymen at the barred gate look at you with bored curiosity as you signal that you want to enter. "Press" is pretty much a password to anything in India (Kashmir included) and entry is given, along with the warning that 10 minutes inside is all that would be allowed --- this is army territory and restricted entry.
What follows immediately after is a physical body search by two unsmiling ladies in mufti, who pass you through after the customary frisking of bags.
The first sight of the inside of the stadium is somewhat of a shock. This does not seem like the venue of any competition, let alone the 62nd edition of India’s only inter-state football championship. But it is...
Sniffer dogs roam the periphery of the field; the metal grids dividing the stands are cracked and broken. The stands themselves are hardly that, more disjointed blocks of concrete that are moss-ridden, dirty and sprouting poisonous looking weeds from cracks in between the slabs. There are men in civvies roaming around with hand-held metal detectors constantly scouring the ground. Yet, despite the activity, there is a rather forlorn, derelict look about the whole place, one that is magnified a hundredfold after a tentative, first step onto the field of play itself.
For dotting the turf are huge "holes", some filled with dirty water and tinny rubbish from the army stores. They are apparently there for "security purposes". No further explanation is given so the logical assumption is that they are some kind of army trenches, at least the bigger ones are.
Despite the spanking new dressing rooms — boasting of a couch, a few wooden chairs and smelling of fresh paint — which sit incongruously amidst the dilapidated air the rest of the place wears, the question has to be asked: Given that the Bakshi Stadium and Kashmir will host the Santosh Trophy after 30 years, wouldn't it have been better to have everything in tip-top shape before attempting something on such a large scale?
A Rauf, the joint-secretary of the Jammu & Kashmir Sports Council and a former state Ranji Trophy player, who operates out of a small office in the stadium itself, is confident it will happen smoothly. "The security people are here in the run-up to Republic Day and will leave thereafter. We will be ready by May," he says.
Still, it should have all been ready by now, given that the state football association (backed by the state government) has had more than enough time already.
One reason they might have also got permission is that the other venues for the Trophy, the Maulana Azad University ground and the Science College (both in Jammu) are regular sporting venues and have the infrastructure in place. The other reason is deeper, more political — it is to give the state a chance to prove that the state is returning to normalcy.
This will be the first major football championship in Srinagar since the 1978-79 season. The Santosh Trophy wasn't held in 2007 as the All India Football Federation (AIFF) felt the state infrastructure was not ready.
The AIFF then formed an inspection committee headed by one of its vice-presidents, Subrata Dutta and based on his report, finally approved J&K as a venue at an AGM in New Delhi on December 23 last year.
Dutta, asked about the slow pace of renovation at Bakshi, said he was confident they could pull it off. "The J&K state administration, beginning with its chief minister, is totally involved in staging a top-class Santosh Trophy. The principal sports secretary (Ravindra Gupta) was our escort on all three visits to the state. Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad is keen on making sure everything is in place," Dutta tells
"In election year, conducting this successfully means a lot to the government, and, from arranging hotels to making youth hostels and circuit houses available for teams, they are pulling out all stops. An incident-free Santosh Trophy sends out a message to the world that law and order isn't a problem here," he adds.
This was always obviously an attempt to bring J&K into mainstream football after all the strife in the region. For the moment, barring Mehrajuddin Wadoo, who plays for East Bengal and India (though not a first XI regular) and Mohun Bagan striker Ishfaque Ahmed (not a regular at his club itself), no J&K player is in top-flight Indian football. The AIFF is looking at this as an attempt to try and remedy that situation.
"The one thing that struck me was this is one state where football is more popular than cricket. It seemed to be the favourite pastime for young boys there," says Dutta. "I met an Argentine coach in Srinagar who teaches kids for free twice daily," he said.
A new beginning
Wadoo agrees it would be huge for the state to have the Santosh Trophy there, even in this age, when the importance of an inter-state
championship has declined with the rise of professional clubs and a parallel professional football culture.
But for Kashmir and the Kashmiris, savaged by terror attacks for countless years now, the concept of their state and a Kashmiri identity is part of their being. Wadoo, quite an icon and an inspiration to modern Kashmiri youth already, believes that watching professional footballers up close and personal will go a long way towards enthusing kids to take up the sport seriously.
"It's great that J&K won the bid to host the Trophy," he tells HT from Kolkata. The last time the nationals went to J&K, Bengal beat Goa 1-0 in the final. It is more than likely that this time too, the teams that dominate the event will be those from football's powerhouse states. Reasonably, J&K doesn't stand a realistic chance of creating a major upset. However, that is not what this state is looking at. For Kashmiris, this hosting of the event itself is a major victory and the start of a new beginning.
And if they want inspiration or an omen, they can always look to Manipur. The North Eastern state was riven by insurgency when it hosted the nationals in the 2001-02 season. And the hosts won the Trophy, beating Kerala in the final. There's always hope.