It’s difficult to imagine an Indian Super League club or even an I-League club for that matter, haggling with the local fruit seller for bananas.
For Real Kashmir, with one of the smallest budgets in Indian football, first division, second or otherwise, it wasn’t a frugal measure but one borne out of sheer necessity. Crowd funding brought in the minimum funding required to set up a first-team and a couple of age group teams, but not much else.
Four years after inception, Real Kashmir just confirmed their place in the topmost tier of Indian football. There’s no fear of obscurity anymore while approaching sponsors, for they became the first team from the valley to qualify for the I-League.
The gulf in experience was a mismatch; it was the plucky valley team playing in the division for only the second year versus the perennial second division heavyweights from New Delhi, Hindustan FC. The latter will now play the second division for a record 15th season in a row, after getting pipped 3-2 in their final game.
As the rain poured down in the FSV Arena in Bengaluru, RKFC’s Scottish coach David Robertson, of Rangers and Leeds United fame, was lost for words. “Honestly, it’s a fairytale. Two years ago, there was no [first] team. Now we’re thinking about the likes of East Bengal coming over to Kashmir to play us.”
Ifham Tariq Mir and Danish Farooq, two Kashmiri lads, were on the scoresheet for their club on Thursday. This is the sort of platform that Shameem Meraj, the founder of the club and the owner of local newspaper Kashmir Monitor, sought to give the players from the state while starting Real Kashmir.
“Two years ago you would not see, in January and in snow, that you have football,” says Meraj. Cobbling together donations from local patrons and businesses, Meraj started the club in 2015, only to be pegged back by a lack of quality training facilities and curfews.
While financial constraints eased, training and match practice logistics remained a challenge. Bakshi Stadium, their home ground located next to the JK Sports Council, was closed due to the snow pouring in. The budget continued to be modest though, as nine Indians from outside the state and two foreigners were signed for a cumulative salary of three lakhs per month.
The Sports Council’s Turf would sometimes be used but lack of floodlights and snow clearance would be a challenge to the team’s training time. Robertson had to keep changing the training time from 7 am to 3 pm due to the harsh weather and curfew.
Salman Mir, the team’s manager in their first season in the second division and now with ISL side Pune City, remembers the team’s inception, “We had the smallest budget in the entire division but it was fantastic to watch a local derby (LoneStar Kashmir vs Real Kashmir). People would pack the TRC Ground in Srinagar to watch these two teams play.”
Hardly a surprise considering the immense popularity of the game in the state. The J&K League is one of the oldest in the country, running for 40 years, albeit with gaps in years where hostile conditions forced the local FA to postpone the league.
Mir says that there’s hardly a district in Kashmir which does not have kids turning out in droves for football tryouts. “Football is not only popular in Srinagar but also in Bandipora, Baramulla, Ganderbal Sopore, Budgam. We have a brand new academy and Pro license coaches like Hilal Rasool Parray coming through.”
Despite the team losing some of it’s stars, Loken Meitei, Sushil Meitei and others to ISL and I-League clubs, Real Kashmir came back stronger from the disappointment of losing out on the second division final stage by a single point last year.
The club arranged a tour to Scotland, an invaluable experience for the players and went about rebuilding the team with local players. This time, two-thirds of the squad belonged to the state and the other third contained the likes of ex-India U19 international Nadong Bhutia, who scored the vital third goal against Hindustan.
Credit must also go to the Kashmiris who have managed to make it to the big leagues. The likes of Mehrajuddin Wadoo and Ishfaq Ahmed created a path for the young guns to follow. Ishfaq, assistant manager at Jamshedpur FC says it’s important for the team to conduct shrewd transfer business ahead of the start of the I-League. “Its a fantastic achievement and we have always helped them out, supported them. I shall sit with them prior to the start of the season and talk about the new signings.”
This season, Real Kashmir went unbeaten in their group, as they romped to top spot in Group A in the preliminary stages with six wins and four draws. In the final round, the resilience showed by the team was immense.
They came back from a goal down twice, to hold Manipur’s TRAU and beat local favourites Ozone FC, to ensure that they only needed a point against Hindustan on the last match-day. Where they needed a point, they secured three as celebrations ensued.
The fairytale just got real for this club, as they come for the Mohun Bagans and the East Bengals. Football in the valley? You bet.