A hope for a better life not just for themselves but also for the troubled state they have put on the national footballing landscape — for the path-breaking Real Kashmir FC players, the ‘beautiful game’ is far from being merely a means to earn a livelihood.
Their odd jobs, family backgrounds, and determination to rise above it tick all the boxes for the story that is Indian sports. But just as any other story like theirs, it was nonetheless inspiring when the club, founded just a couple of years ago, qualified for the elite I-League.
A daily wage earner, who hopes he never has to go back to that job, a small-time private telephone company employee, and a cricket buff-turned footballer — it is a diverse group that makes up the team.
But what unites it is the game, famously described as a matter bigger than life or death by Bill Shankly — the man who transformed a second division Liverpool into the force that it became in Europe.
“It is very difficult to get a secure job in Kashmir. I work on daily wage in a dry fruit factory. From 7am to 9am, I have my football training and after that from 10am to 6pm I work at a factory and things like packing, sending parcels, etc.,” 22-year-old defender Suhail Ahmad Bhat told PTI.
Bhat, Amir Rehman (defender), Danish Farooq (midfielder) and Muhammad Hammad (defender) are all from Srinagar and in their early 20s. It wasn’t easy for them to pursue football given their diversely difficult circumstances but not they are hoping to inspire many more like them.
Bhat’s father is a diabetic and his mother a housewife. He has a family to care for while pursuing his passion on the field. All he earns after a day’s hard work is a measly Rs 300.
“Is haalaat mein, aadmi ko patthar banna padta hai (In such circumstances, one needs to harden himself like a stone). By the grace of God, I feel I am going towards success. I hope to play in big I-League and ISL clubs in future and earn even more,” he said.
“The amount I am getting from the club (Real Kashmir FC) is a good sum and I can manage my family with that better than before. Now that we have qualified for the I-League, I hope my financial position gets better.
“I hope I don’t work as daily wage earner again. Football is my future,” he added.
The 23-year-old Amir Rehman has been working as an FOS (Front Office Service) for a mobile company after his training to help his self-employed father run the family.
“From 8am to 10am, I train and from 11am to 6pm, I work as FOS of Aircel in Srinagar. I need to do this to supplement my family income. My father does embroidery work at home and that is not enough,” said the midfielder who played in the Santosh Trophy National Football Championships in 2016.
He signed for Real Kashmir this year and wants to play in an ISL. Of course, the national team too figures in his life goals.
For Danish Farooq, football is in blood as his father played for Mohmmedan Sporting in Kolkata.
“My father, uncles, and grandfather had played football. My father used to take me to football matches and so I got interested in the sport. I got enrolled in the J & K Bank Academy and then I played for the bank team and became captain. That is how I began. After that I played for Lonestar and then this year signed for Real Kashmir,” said the B.A. final year student.
“I am from a middle-class family. My father retired as state road transport corporation employee but studying as well as playing football is tough. I have chosen football as my career. I want to complete my graduation so that I can completely focus on football.”
Hammad had thought of becoming a cricketer as his father plays the sport but in school, it was football that became his passion.
“I was lucky because former India player Abdul Majeed Kakroo took me under him in his local club. After that, I joined Lonestar Kashmir before signing for Real Kashmir this year. Football is my future and I want to play for the country and in the ISL,” said 22-year-old B. Com second-year student.
He, however, said that the violence in the Valley has impacted their training schedule and their psyche.
“When we go for training and know that there can be a bandh or strike next day, we have to go and stay at our owner’s hotel a day before as it is safer. But we are used to these kinds of situation,” said Hammad who is also the vice-captain of the side.
All of them hoped their club’s achievements will help inspire the valley’s youth to take up the sport.
“The situation is not at times perfect for football. But our feat will only help in the sport’s growth. The government should help in upgrading the existing infrastructure so that I-League matches are held in Srinagar.
“The impact of having I-League matches in Kashmir will be huge. We should not lose this opportunity,” Bhat said.
Rehman added: “The perception of people outside the state is that Kashmir is all about violence and turmoil but that is not the case. We have 16 players from outside the state including two foreigners.
“In the initial few days, they were also feeling that it would be difficult for them. But later on, they found it as normal as anywhere in India. They did not have any problems later on.”