A meeting with a drug-addicted school student in 2019 left Hinan Manzoor so shaken, the 29-year-old MBA decided he had to do something about the turmoil in Downtown Srinagar.

It did not seem so long ago that the culturally rich Shahar-e-Khas, or Downtown, had been the vibrant centre of Kashmiri life. But much has changed in recent years.

“Over the past three decades, Downtown has lost all its past glory due to the political instability in the region and various turmoils,” Manzoor told Scroll on the phone.

Manzoor, who grew up in the area, and his friends Mushtaq Bashir, Irfan Shahmiri, and Kaiser Bhat decided to form a football club to provide an avenue of escape for high-risk youngsters. Downtown Heroes FC took off in 2020.

“Downtown’s image took a complete turn due to these anti-social evils like drugs,” Manzoor said. “We wanted to show the world that we are not bad people and so decided to start with our own club based in the area.”

The club started playing at the city’s Islamia College ground. Its rise on the Indian domestic football scene was swift.

Downtown Heroes were runners-up in the 2022-23 I-League Division 2 (the third tier for men’s football in the country, after the Indian Super League and I-League first division). Currently, Downtown Heroes are top of the Jammu and Kashmir Football Association Professional League.

This week, the club will take another leap. On August 13, the Downtown Heroes will compete in the Durand Cup – Asia’s oldest football tournament – for the first time. It will play its debut match against Shillong Lajong FC in Khorajhar, Assam,

Rescue for youth

Football used to have a large following in Kashmir, Manzoor recalled. Before the region slipped into political turmoil, shops would shut down when a local football fixture was on so everyone could watch the game.

The tumult has sparked an epidemic of substance abuse. “...Depleting employability avenues, economic shut downs and frequent disasters in the region have aggravated the mental trauma among youth in Kashmir,” the club said on its website.

Nearly a million people in Jammu and Kashmir are victims of substance abuse, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment told a parliament session in March.

Last year, 44,000 addicts sought treatment at the Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences in Kashmir – up from 24,000 in 2021. In 2015, only 500 people had come to the institute to be treated for addiction.

Downtown Heroes believes that sports could help young Kashmiris break out of the situation. “Unless some avenues of de-stressing and psycho-social wellbeing opportunities are opened up by building conducive environments through promotion and use of sport activities, the decline in drug addiction cases is not achievable in near future,” Downtown Heroes said on its website.

It added, “Outdoor sport is considered as one of the most effective tools for one’s physical and mental wellbeing. Promoting outdoor sport is the need of the hour, and the only remedy in current days to help Kashmiri youth prosper, live stress free and a healthy life.”

Manzoor, who is also the club’s CEO, said that the team was named Downtown Heroes “because we wanted our community to look up to these people as heroes. We want to show them there is a better life outside all these sufferings.”

The club currently has close to 100 players across age groups – 32 in the professional team and around 70 in the Under-15 and Under-17 academy teams.

Many academy players are teenagers addicted to substance abuse who approached the club to get a second shot in life.

“We have players in our academy teams, who approach us on their own or with someone from their family, to emerge out of their substance-abuse issues,” said Manzoor.

The club not only helps them in rehabilitation and to integrate them back into the community but also tries to help them out with their education and financially.

Downtown Heroes has a dedicated scouting team that monitors talented at-risk youth and works to convince them to take up football.

The Heroes’ professional players also make the time to help get these young people back on track.

“On our off days, we do whatever little we can to help out the kids in the academy,” said Salah Shafi, a defender in the team.

He added: “The team management is doing great work by giving these kids who do not have anything in life a second opportunity. We look at it as our way of giving back to society.”

Currently training at the TRC ground in Srinagar, Downtown Heroes are now planning to start a women’s team soon.

“We are now working towards setting up a proper women’s team and qualify for the Indian Women’s League,” Manzoor said.

At the moment, their focus is on their men’s team that will make its Durand Cup debut on Sunday.

Following the match against Shillong Lajong, they play FC Goa on August 16, followed by their last group stage match against NorthEast United on August 20.