Srinagar: The sight of three-tier security outside Srinagar’s TRC ground on Tuesday afternoon could have easily been mistaken for a venue of a political rally. At the main gate, makeshift tunnels manned by sleuths of the Jammu and Kashmir police streamlined the crowd into the ground after frisking and scanning by metal detectors.

Inside, history was unfolding.

The first ever I-league match in Jammu and Kashmir was moments away from kickoff. Driving a mad rush into the stadium despite the chilly weather was the extraordinary rise of a local professional club, Real Kashmir, who were debuting at home. The local club was to take on two-time former I-league champions Churchill Brothers.

As the teams made their way into the ground, it was already a full house. Chants of “Jeetega bhai jeetega, Real Kashmir jeetega” begin even before the first kick. There’s hardly anyone chanting for the away team.

“I took a half-day leave from office to be here,” 58-year-old Mohammad Amin Khan told as he tried to find a suitable spot to enjoy the game. An employee at Sher-I-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences, Soura, Srinagar, Amin Khan is a regular at the ground.

Just the beginning for football in J&K | I-League
Just the beginning for football in J&K | I-League

Pointing out to the names of various stands put up in the name of Kashmir’s older generation of footballers, Khan is taken back to his childhood.

“Football is my passion. During my childhood in ’70s and ’80s, Kashmir was mad about football. The crowd here today is too small in front of that,” Khan said, while pointing out to the packed stadium. “I have been watching football here since last four decades.”

Ruing the fate of football in Kashmir following the militancy in the ’90s and widespread violence, the 58-year-old football buff looks at the I-league match as some sort of a consolation.

“This will attract more youth towards football, particularly when foreign players will come here and interact with local talent,” said Khan’s friend Bashir Ahmad Mir.

On Tuesday morning, when the sun was out after days filled with overcast skies and snowfall, 60-year-old Bashir Mir of Dalgate, Srinagar, decided to take a stroll to reach the stadium.

“Otherwise, I would have come in public transport but I would have come definitely, even if it was snowing,” said Bashir, who had shut his tailoring shop in the afternoon to watch the match.

Played in the backdrop of barren Chinars and scenic snow-capped mountains, the club’s home debut marks a new milestone for professional football in Kashmir. The first-ever club from the state to qualify for the country’s top tier I-league, Real Kashmir is a story of triumph and hope in a place known for uncertainty and despair.

Throughout the goal-less match, every build-up, every shot or dribble by the local club had the crowd on its toes. Whenever the opposition’s run to goal ended in a loss, the packed stadium broke into applause and loud whistles.

The fans turned up in droves | I-League
The fans turned up in droves | I-League

At times, when the Churchill Brothers’ forwards got closer to the net, the entire stadium gasped for breath.

“In Kashmir, the football, traditionally, has remained confined to local or government departmental level,” said Muzzamil Mohammad Dar, a 35-year-old football coach from central Kashmir’s Ganderbal. “This match is a turning point in the history of J&K football.”

In 2015, Muzzamil was an assistant coach for Real Kashmir when the club was in the I-League’s second division. However, he couldn’t continue his run with the club due to his job as a government teacher.

“But I continued to follow the club’s performance,” he said. “It’s a remarkable idea to train young talent and give them the much needed exposure unavailable to a player till now in Kashmir. We have been yearning for this kind of investment since decades.”

As the game neared its end on Tuesday evening, the ecstatic crowd reminded Ashraf Bhat, 45, of the international football tournaments he ardently follows on television.

“If there was no astroturf, the players would be playing in mud this time,” said Ashraf, who has a meat shop in Nowhatta, Srinagar. “Wish we could have more such infrastructure.”

While football enthusiasts view the arrival of I-league in Kashmir with optimism, they also seem to be aware of the fragility of “peace” in the conflict-torn state. Just last month, a final of an invitational tournament against FC Minerva scheduled to be played in Srinagar had to be cancelled due to curfew.

Yet, for many people like Amin Khan and Bashir Mir, a game of football is a window of relief from the daily violence and bloodshed.

“I forget all my pains and tension when I come here,” said Bashir. “We are overburdened with pain, this just diverts my mind.”

According to Muzzamil, the match was symbolic – not only for professional football but the people of Kashmir as well.

“For all the pain and misery Kashmiris witness on daily basis, this match is a brief moment of celebration.”