In times of pain, this football club from Kashmir is bridging the state’s gap with India
Srinagar, Feb 25: At a time when Jammu and Kashmir is reeling under a serious security crisis and the people of the state are being targeted elsewhere in India in the wake of the dastardly terror attack on a CRPF convoy in the state's Pulwama district on February 14, killing over 40 personnel, there is one story of hope and it is related to football (cricket, the country's most popular sport, however has seen more divisions than bridges at the moment).
Real Kashmir Football Club (FC), set up in 2016 and runs with a budget which is much less than many of the other football clubs in the country, are close to winning the country's top professional tournament I-League and if that happens, they would register a historic feat undoubtedly.
Real Kashmir was promoted to play the I-League this season that ends next month after they won the second division of the league in 2017-18. They are currently placed second in the points table with 33 points in 17 matches with nine wins, six losses and two draws. Only Chennai City are placed ahead of them with 40 points.
"We're the only club in India that has sold-out stadiums at almost every game," Real Kashmir's co-founder Shamim Mehraj was quoted as saying to US-based National Public Radio. "What we have done is give people some hope in a place that has actually been taken down by conflict and violence for the past 60 years. It's helping this place heal."
With the state witnessing a new low in terms of spiralling violence and surge in terror activities, Real Kashmir's inspiring performance in India's top football league is certainly a big deal for the country's sports-lovers and liberals.
There is also a fascinating story behind the birth of the football club.
The club took birth after the horrendous floods of 2014
In 2014, the Kashmir Valley witnessed devastating floods that killed several hundreds. Mehraj's hometown Srinagar saw kids sitting idle and it was then when the former and one of his Hindu friends Sandeep Chattoo thought of giving the kids some balls to have some engagement.
Mehraj himself played football for his college team in New Delhi and some amateur tournaments in his own state, the NPR report said.
"Mehraj, who is Muslim, and his Hindu friend Sandeep Chattoo, 52, got friends and neighbors to pitch in and buy 1,000 soccer balls, which they handed out to flood victims. But why stop there? In March 2016, they started a team," the report added.
A Scottish coach with experience in US was hired
The next step was to apply for participation in India I-League Second Division. A Scottish coach named David Robertson who coached in Arizona, US, was hired and the man, who had never been to India and found elements quite tough here, had to be convinced about taking up the job by the club co-founders.
"All I ever saw was TV shows that showed it's 90 degrees - it's hot in India! But I arrived here and the next day, it was snowing.There was no Internet, the electricity was out, and I just thought, 'I want to go home'," he said.
But the 50-year-old stayed back and also recruited his 24-year-old son Mason to play for Real Kashmir, also called "Snow Leopards" and now he is in his third year with the club that won the second division title only in their second year.
This year, Real Kashmir was promoted to the I-League as first team from the disturbed state to qualify (there is another team from Kashmir called Lone Star Kashmir FC that plays in the second division of the I-League).
Last October, Real Kashmir even secured a sponsorship deal with Adidas and it now helps Mehraj and his friend Chattoo to pay the players' salaries.
They say sports can do what politics can't. Very true indeed.