Real Kashmir FC: In a volatile valley, honing real champs

Hindustan Times, New Delhi | ByBhargab Sarmah
Jun 07, 2018 12:04 PM IST

Coached by an Alex Ferguson protege, Real Kashmir FC have overcome numerous issues to become the first club from the valley to qualify for the I-League

It all started with what he saw on his evening walks, says Shamim Meraj. In 2014, when Kashmir was reeling from devastating floods, Meraj understood the scale of its destruction from the kids he saw in the locality of his Srinagar home. “We used to see many kids hanging around and with nothing to do,” he says.

Real Kashmir FC became the first club from the valley to qualify for the I-League when they won the 2nd Division League last month.(HT photo)
Real Kashmir FC became the first club from the valley to qualify for the I-League when they won the 2nd Division League last month.(HT photo)

Floods had affected the daily lives of thousands of Kashmiris. Meraj came up with the idea of helping kids from his locality recover from the trail of devastation left by the floods. He got in touch with a few friends based in Delhi.

“We pooled some money together and bought a thousand footballs with it. All these balls were distributed among the kids in my area. That is when the idea to get involved in football first came to me,” reveals Meraj.

A St. Stephen’s College alumnus and owner of the Kashmir Monitor newspaper, Meraj had been a footballer himself during his younger years. He soon got in touch with friend and local businessman Sandeep Chattoo. The idea was to form a football club in Srinagar.

“Nothing moved till 2016. It was only in April 2016 that the Jammu & Kashmir Football Association gave us permission to form a club.”

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When Real Kashmir Football Club came into being, the biggest challenge for Meraj and Chattoo was the lack of resources. Support came from close friends and family members, he says. “We still don’t have any sponsors, though. It’s just me, Sandeep, Kashmir Monitor and a few friends and relatives.”

The other big issue for the club was the lack of grounds to practice in.

“When Shamim and I started the club, it was kind of a joke given the meagre facilities we had at the time. During the winters when it snowed, the players used to clear the ground before they started practice,” Chattoo, a Srinagar-based hotelier, explains.

The infrastructural issues continue to persist, he adds.

“There is only one ground for all teams to play and practice in. The Bakshi Stadium will be under repair for some time, so that just leaves the Tourist Reception Centre (TRC) Ground for all teams here.”

Meraj explains that four teams from his club, including three age-group sides, the Lonestar Kashmir team and two state academy teams practice daily on the ground in one to two-hour slots.

The waves of violence in the Valley, however, are a deterrent. “You never know when there will be a shutdown. If there is a shutdown, two or three players may not turn up. The coaches work on a European model and have their sessions ready. If they prepare a training session for, say, 25 players and only 22 turn up, then it messes things up a bit.”

Nevertheless, Real Kashmir managed to put together a formidable group of players and staff that propelled the team to I-League qualification last Wednesday.

It is also one of the most diverse teams in the country.

“I am a Kashmiri Muslim, Sandeep is a Kashmiri Pandit; we have Africans, Scotsmen, Hindus, Muslims, even a Buddhist as well as players from different linguistic backgrounds.

“All of them playing for a team based out of Kashmir is a great example of how football can transcend barriers,” remarks Meraj, highlighting the Kashmiriyat of his champion side.

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Defender Mohammad Hammad is one of key members of the Real Kashmir side that won the second division title on May 30 and secured qualification to the I-League, to be held later this year. Considered one of the brightest prospects from the valley, Hammad took to the sport after passing high school, later than most professional footballers.

As a kid, when he couldn’t go out and play on days of curfews or shutdowns, Hammad says he used to practice in the backyard of his house.

He is, however, quick to add that the security situation in Kashmir doesn’t hamper young footballers as much as the lack of proper infrastructure. Compounding the issues is the lack of an organised league structure in the state.

“The issues young footballers face here aren’t actually much different from what they face in the rest of the country. There’s not much parental support for kids to take up sports professionally but you can also understand the reason behind it: there is no proper infrastructure to support sportspersons here. It explains why most of us started playing football very late,” Hammad says.

Hammad grew up watching two Indian football stars from Kashmir, Mehrajuddin Wadoo and Ishfaq Ahmed.

Mehrajuddin, a member of India’s 2011 Asian Cup squad, and was a popular defensive mid-fielder played for all the Big Three teams in Kolkata and Goan side Salgaocar FC.

Things are gradually changing though, Hammad says. “Since Lonestar Kashmir and Real Kashmir came up, the support system for young footballers has improved.” Chattoo is in agreement with Hammad. “The violence doesn’t affect football as much as the lack of access to playing grounds. If you come to one of our practice sessions, you will see that sometimes there is stone pelting going on just two kilometers away. Anybody with a football in his or her hands isn’t bothered by the unrest. These are two completely different worlds altogether.

“I think everybody is looking at Kashmir from the wrong perspective. Don’t just look at it as a place full of people pelting stones. There are over 3400 boys and girls who we help train here in Srinagar. Who are these kids? They are the same kids from Kashmir. It’s just that these kids have been given an opportunity, an outlet to focus their energies on.”

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Real Kashmir’s recent ascension to the second division throne was orchestrated by a Scotsman David Robertson.

A former Scottish international, Robertson had been signed by then Aberdeen manager Alex Ferguson during his teenage years.

“He played me in the reserve team when I was 14 and in the senior team when I was 17. He gave me the first team opportunity and wanted to sign me for Manchester United but Aberdeen wouldn’t let me go,” reminisces Robertson. While a move to United didn’t come to fruition, Robertson went on to have a stellar career playing for Rangers, where he won multiple domestic titles during his time. Robertson later headed to the US to work as a coach. Prior to his move to Real Kashmir, he had offers to work in China, among other countries.

“I could have gone to clubs where there wouldn’t have been much room for improvement but this was a new club with ambitious owners. When this opportunity came, it was like being presented with a blank canvas,” he explains.

Many coaches would have been deterred by the law and order situation in the valley. So what prompted Robertson to move to one of the most volatile regions in India? “I am the type of person that likes to try new things. I had coached in Scotland, England and USA but this was something completely new and different.

“There are a few problems here of course but I think a lot of it is hyped up in the media. It’s not as bad as people say. I go for walks everyday; I go to the city centre, have my coffee there. The people are quite friendly as well. To be honest with you, I have had no problem here at all,” says the former Scottish left-back.

If the Real Kashmir story was a blank canvas when Robertson joined the club, it is now a distinctive palette of colours. The challenge before the club now is to sustain top-flight football in the valley.

“It was a very nice feeling on Wednesday night (May 30). Now suddenly we are overwhelmed by the enormity of the task ahead,” sums up Meraj.

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