Kashmir (J&K), the region with beautiful landscape surrounded by rivers, valleys, lakes and the Himalayas, no wonder some refer to the parts as ‘heaven on Earth’. Unfortunately, the area known for notorious military and political activities for the past 4-5 decades has a famous football story to tell in the form of its local club, The Snow Leopards- Real Kashmir FC!
The article consists material with the help of online resources available through TIFO Football (written by Saikat Chakrobarty & narrated by Jose Devine) & The Guardian. The purpose of this write up is to make people aware that once you dream of something, hurdles are in evident, but how one pursues that dream without giving up is what makes these dreams turn into reality.
Football has been one of the most popular sport in the region, however due to military conflicts between India & Pakistan, daily life and sport have become a victim in the name of war. However, football has found its footprints in the valley again, as locals have used it as an escapism to get away from the strikes and conflicts, thanks to Real Kashmir FC, a club based in Srinagar, Jammu & Kashmir.
The Snow Leopards are the first club from the region to compete in the I-League, the first division football of India. The club took part in the Durand cup in September 2016, marking their debut in the competition and went on to become the first club from Jammu & Kashmir region to play four matches abroad, in Scotland on July 2017.
The club gained promotion to the first division in May 2018 after winning the 2017/18 second division league. According to the Times of India the club went to Germany in August 2018 for a pre-season training camp at Borussia Dortmund. For a newly born club, a lot has happened in a short span of time, as it was an idea formed back in 2014 when 2 journalists: Shamim Meraj & Sandeep Chatto came up with the idea to keep the youth busy at the time of a devastating flood. In their first competition, the club compromised of semi-professional players, with little experience, finished at the very bottom, as the team was not prepared to face hardships on the field and off it, especially in terms of talent and finances.
However, their luck was soon to change after the arrival of Scottish manager, David Robertson, a former Rangers & Aberdeen player, who helped the club finish 3rd in their group, narrowly missing out an opportunity to play in the final round in their first season of their league in the second division. They surprised all odds by going unbeaten in their second season and finishing first after a 3-2 win against Hindustan FC in their final game. Made possible with the recruitment of two new foreign players: Defender, Loveday Enyinnaya (Nigeria) & Forward, Yao Kouassi Bernard (Ivory Coast), added valuable experience to the squad.
To everyone’s surprise, there was no financial assistance from the All Indian Football Federation (AIFF) or the state Government, instead assisted by silent funds from locals and well-wishers. The coach also signed his son, Mason as a defender for the club. One of the club’s most famous players, Danish Farooq earned the title of ‘Kashmiri Ronaldo’ by the fans due to this dribbling and goal scoring abilities, he was also the highest scorer and made the most assists during the club’s course for promotion in the 2017/18 season in the second division. Inspired by his father, Farooq Ahmed, a former player in the region, played for J&K state team in Santosh Trophy, later went to play for Kolkata based club, Mohemmadan Sporting.
Many of the semi-professional and amateurs players were playing part time and had to cross various checkpoints to make it to the stadium to play matches or miss out altogether during strikes and curfews. Players often had to resort to practice in local parks without proper facilities and available goal posts or training gear. Even fight against the severe weather conditions such as rain and snow in the mountainous region.
Promotion to the I-League attracted much needed attention, in their very first game of the first division; Real Kashmir defeated defending champions, FC Minerva Punjab at their own backyard. The BBC made a documentary on the club called “Real Kashmir FC” which follows their Scottish manager. They also managed to secure global giants, Adidas as their kit sponsors in October 2018.
The Snow Leopards finished 3rd in their debut season of Indian top flight football- sparked a wave of a new dawn in the region, providing a glimmer of hope and showing others one can do big if they dream big and believe in it. The rise of Real Kashmir FC is a fairy tale indeed, the players when travelling away have to break contact with their loved ones, it also means their family, friends & other local fans may not even be able to watch them live due to the conflicts and media restrictions at the time of a lockdown and curfew. But when at home, 20,000 fans try to flock in the 10-15,000 capacity stadium, the 90 minutes cheering on the team makes the fans forget about the protest march and calls for freedom, they are independent and free in that time period, cheering on for themselves, backing their own team instead of shouting slogans of either India or Pakistan.
Sandeep & Shamim, are both Kashmiris with different backgrounds. Sandeep, a Hindu and Shamim, a Muslim, came up with the idea of providing the kids with balls, so they can spend their energy in something productive and find another way instead of fighting soldiers, left to be suffered as victim of brutal attacks. Football makes the locals happy, the Kashmiris cry for change and happiness, and it gives them a small dose of it. The word ‘Real’ was added to Kashmir, for the World to see the Real face and talent of Kashmir.
We wish them good luck for the future and hope they can go long way in becoming a football powerhouse not only in India but also Asia.