“I learned all about life with a ball at my feet,” was Brazil legend Ronaldinho’s take on what football meant to him. And it’s a sentiment that Real Kashmir FC would probably identify with after adjusting to the valley’s “curfews and cordons” courtesy the ‘beautiful game’.
The first club from Jammu and Kashmir to qualify for the I-League is slowly building up to that dream debut on the big stage when they take on Churchill Brothers on November 6 at home turf.
“We can be the positive story coming from Kashmir. I appreciate the media for putting out the good word. Now it is for us to do all the hard work and shine, we have no other option,” says the team’s veteran mid-fielder Khalid Qayoom.
Qayoom and the rest of the squad enjoyed a day out in Srinagar recently, cheering on the players of an under-18 state championship match at the TRC Turf Ground recently.
The two-year old club, started by two friends — Sandeep Chattoo and Shamim Meraj — initially just for “fun”, became the first club from the valley to qualify for the I-League by beating Delhi’s Hindustan FC 3-2 in Bengaluru.
Qayoom spoke about the many reasons why football has a “huge following” in the valley.
“Mehraj (former India player Mehrajuddin Wadoo) and Ishfaq Ahmed are the reason so many people want to become footballers. They are our role models. People see them as stars of the valley. God willing if we do better in I-League people will think the same way for us also,” he said.
The crowd at the practice match he watching was rather thin, mostly outside thanks to the weekly flea market — starting from the ground to the Hari Singh High Street.
Inside the ground, the decibel levels were significantly lower. Though not empty, the stands were mostly vacant.
“Buck up”, screamed Qayoom, joined by fellow mid-fielders Shahnawaz Bashir and Danish Farooq.
This got the spectators involved, and what followed was a goal by Maharaja Sports.
“And now you will see the goalkeeper of Maharaja Sports team bowing down in direction of the mosque and thank the lord,” whispered a spectator to his young child, pointing to the mosque next to the stadium.
And this is exactly what happened a moment later.
“This photograph should make for the sports pages in local newspapers tomorrow,” murmured another fan.
It was game on for everyone present in the ground now.
“Because of the cold there are less spectators today, otherwise in summer, and also when we will play the I-League matches here by God’s will, you will see the stadium jam-packed ,” Qayoom, an ardent Cristiano Ronaldo fan, said.
His father was also a footballer though not a professional one like Danish’s father. Qayoom said after long there is excitement in the valley.
“Right now I think of myself as the luckiest person in the valley who is getting to live his dream, he said gleefully.
Building the team up for the big challenge ahead is coach David Robertson — ex- Rangers and Aberdeen player. The Scot said it feels like home here.
Robertson is keen to improve not just players’ skills but also his Hindi and loves to flaunt the new words and phrases he has been picking up — sometimes without even asking.
“Jaldi, jaldi… I use that a lot,” he said smiling.
That said, making football a career in J&K is easier said than done. Qayoom knows all about it.
“Had things been peaceful in the valley, had the administration supported us, had the government supported us, I would have achieved this thing (making I-League cut) eight years back,” said Qayoom, who will be turning 30 next year.
Khalid rued the fact that state has literally no infrastructure for any sport.
The TRC Turf Ground, the club’s home ground for the upcoming I-League season which boasts of an imported synthetic turf, had nothing else to offer for the longest time and is now being spruced up.
The facility, however, is yet to receive clearance from officials as a venue to host I-League matches.
“The infrastructure here has only gone from bad to worse. We have the Bakshi stadium, which is now being turned into an international ground, but that could have easily been done 10 years ago. We are lagging far behind when compared to other states,” he added.
For someone who started playing football at the age of 14, Qayoom, a resident of downtown Srinagar, also spoke about the political turmoil and the “curfews and strikes” that affected his growth as a player,
“They harm your day-to-day life, not only football,” he pointed out.
“We have been facing this situation all our life now. So yes we now know the tricks, we know how to tackle curfews, we know how to escape from the cordons,” he said.
“We had to adjust somehow. Like, here also usually our practice starts at 9 in the morning, if there is a curfew or strike we come at 7 only,” he said.
But that stopped borthering Qayoom and other players of the team long back. All they want to do is shine, and shine now.
Are they in ‘jaldi, jaldi?’, you bet.