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Sunday, Sep 22, 2019

Real Kashmir: Bonding in time of crisis

Contrast this with Real Kashmir’s preparations and the impact of four or five first-team players with families off the communications grid and it fits why Robertson said his team was “brilliant”.

football Updated: Aug 23, 2019 00:03 IST
Dhiman Sarkar
Dhiman Sarkar
Hindustan Times, Kolkata
A file photo of Real Kashmir footballers.
A file photo of Real Kashmir footballers.(Twitter)

At the end of it all, two players slumped on the Salt Lake stadium pitch, a third stooped and held his knees and a fourth had his hands on his hips. The rest of their teammates dragged themselves over to congratulate Mohun Bagan for making it to the 129th Durand Cup final.

For Real Kashmir, resignation had trumped the resilience that had been the hallmark of their campaign.

“The legs went at extra-time,” said Dave Robertson, the Real Kashmir head coach after the 1-3 loss to Mohun Bagan in the semi-final on Wednesday night, one which they prolonged to a two-hour duel by equalising deep in second-half stoppage time.

Robertson’s expectations from the Durand Cup were modest because the team hadn’t trained for nearly 100 days; the players deplaning here from Africa and Europe before travelling to Kalyani, 55km away, three or four days before their first group game. Six players — five from Srinagar and one from Jammu —joined last, on the evening of August 5, hours after the state was fragmented, and put under a security blanket and a communications lockdown. Real Kashmir played their first game on August 7 after one training session.

Since flying out of Srinagar, midfielder Danish Farooq said he has spoken to his family once. “It doesn’t feel comfortable that you can’t talk to your family. You should be talking to them daily when you are out of home,” he said. Athletes are sticklers for pre-match routines. For Farooq, 23, it was talking to his large family in Srinagar before every game. “I would talk to my parents, my sisters. It was almost a ritual and would make me feel good,” he said.

“Now I miss that. It makes me uncomfortable. But we are trying to cope.” Exactly how coping is a way of life for people of Jammu and Kashmir could be gauged by what Real Kashmir’s co-owner Sandeep Chattoo said after they began the Durand Cup beating I-League champions Chennai City’s all-Indian squad 1-0 through Farooq’s injury-time winner. “If we let every little problem affect us, we wouldn’t have been here,” he said.

Chattoo, a businessman who along with Shamim Meraj owns the team, has been crucial in helping home-based players cope. There have been reports of him taking audio messages to the players’ families as he shuttled between Srinagar and Kalyani. And the only time in two weeks Farooq could speak to his folks at home, it was through Chattoo.

“It wasn’t difficult staying away from home when we could communicate. Now, communication is down and that makes things difficult. That is why we are worried,” said Farooq.

Robertson too helped the players deal with this. “He is playing a big part in making sure everyone is comfortable. He keeps reminding us that we are family,” said Farooq.

Robertson passed the compliment back to his players. “They are robust, have great attitude. They are professional football players; they focus on football, like myself and the coaching staff. They have never complained once,” he said.

“I can’t say about others but when I am on the pitch, things are different,” said Farooq.

After they won the first game, Real Kashmir again played on August 10, against Army Green. “Some of the players couldn’t train because they were carrying knocks from the first game which was expected,” said Robertson. Real Kashmir won 4-0, having scored three goals in the opening 38 minutes.

“After that, we got a week’s break but couldn’t train for three days because of rain,” said Robertson. Real Kashmir had a total of five or six training sessions since regrouping, he said.

Mohun Bagan coach Kibu Vicuna reached Kolkata on June 27 and started pre-seasons on July 4. Yet when Real Kashmir equalised on Wednesday through Gnohere Krizo, Vicuna said it felt like they would be made to pay for not killing the game earlier.

Even after a training camp in Goa where they also played friendlies, Vicuna has faced questions about Mohun Bagan’s fitness. “I told you since the first match that we are going to get the physical condition better by playing matches,” said the Spaniard. Playing for 120 minutes this early in the season is very tough, said Mohun Bagan’s Spanish striker Salva Chamorro, 29.

Contrast this with Real Kashmir’s preparations and the impact of four or five first-team players with families off the communications grid and it fits why Robertson said his team was “brilliant”.

“There are so many hurdles put in front of my team but at the end, you saw the fight tonight,” he said. After losing to Real Kashmir, Chennai City FC coach Akbar Nawas had said: “If you remember, Iraq won the Asian Cup under similar circumstances (in 2007). So it means when you have such difficult circumstances, it might motivate you.”

Farooq will take his worries to Mumbai where Real Kashmir will train for two weeks, his feeling homesick unlikely to heal, before the team goes to Srinagar. For the moment he has a group of footballers as family and a Scot head coach who believes in ‘befriending’ players and “making them relaxed.” A coach so sold on the idea of team spirit that he says without it, you are wasting your time.

First Published: Aug 23, 2019 00:03 IST