It seems to be common knowledge in Srinagar, the story of how football arrived there. It’s not hard to imagine people, during better times in the valley, sitting on a carpet in one of the many picturesque parks and reciting the tale. Maybe over cups of steaming kahwa, the green tea synonymous with Kashmir served with a sprinkling of crushed almonds and strands of saffron.
The protagonist is British educationist Cecil Tyndale-Biscoe, who tried to get students of a school that would eventually be named after him, to play football. SA Hamid, Jammu Kashmir Football Association’s chief executive and a man who holds most firsts in Kashmiri football (first Santosh Trophy captain in 1964, first coach, first referee), begins the story with the air of a grandfather narrating a fairytale.
“I studied at that school, but this was much before my time,” he says. “In 1891, Tyndale-Biscoe had gone to London on vacation and when he returned, he brought a football with him. After inflating it and putting it on the middle of the pitch, he asked his students — mostly Kashmiri Pundits from affluent families — to kick it. They refused. The ball was made of leather — hide of the holy cow. They were worried, contact with that would pollute them.
“Eventually Tyndale-Biscoe convinced them to wrap cloth around their feet and kick it. This way, they could avoid contact with the ball,” Hamid says. Another version has Tyndale-Biscoe leading his students to the nearby Jhelum to wash away their sins after every game.
Tyndale-Biscoe, his leather ball from London and those rather obstinate students are the first in an enchanting anthology of stories revolving around the beautiful game and the place they call paradise on earth. None, though, may capture imagination as much as the latest in that series — the one about Real Kashmir and how they became the first team from the valley to play in India’s top flight.
The lost generation
Before the Real Kashmir story, there is the tale of Mohammad Shafinari’s homesickness.I-League’s latest entrants may have caused Kashmiri football to be talked about on an unprecedented scale, but they are far from being the valley’s first golden generation. That honour fell to a bunch of the 1980s. For a time, it looked as if Kashmir might join the likes of Kolkata, Goa and Kerala as Indian football’s nerve centres. But then came the 90s, bringing with it a hailstorm of bullets.
Tallest among those names is Abdul Majid Kakroo, a sturdy defender who went as far as captaining India in the 1987 Nehru Cup in Calicut, still the only footballer from the valley to do so. Kursheed Ahmed Baba, a striker, was part of the Indian team that toured USSR in 1986. But veterans in Srinagar remember a bunch of others whose talent was stifled only by the simplicity of their dreams.
Mohammad Shafinari was earmarked for greatness alongside these names, after representing India’s junior team in 1977. Except greatness wasn’t on his bucket list. “As my career was blossoming, I briefly ventured out, playing for Mohammedan Sporting and Dempo,” Shafinari recollects. “But I grew homesick and wanted to return home. So when I got a job with J&K police, I did not think twice. I came back and never went out again.”
Nazir Ahmed, the association’s vice-president, tells a similar tale. “Around the time I started getting offers from clubs across India, my marriage was fixed,” he laughs before quickly moving to absolve his wife of any blame for his career stagnating.
“My fiance was okay with me going out, but the rest of the family wasn’t.” He too settled for J&K Police.
Shafinari remembers a match in the late 80s that whispers, through time, of what could have been. “In 1987,” he says, “we were participating in the All India Police Games, when we convincingly beat Kerala Police.” Three years later, Kerala Police, with Vijayan, Sathyan and Pappachan, won the Federation Cup.
Goals amid guns
It’s only four in the evening, but the shadows are falling fast over the TRC Turf ground in Srinagar. In the stands, camouflage-clad armymen hold vigil, guns listening for the slightest sound of trouble. The valley is shutdown that day, thanks to one of the frequent encounters between the army and militants, but that doesn’t seem to apply to this part of the city.
Behind them, workers labour away, applying finishing touches to the newly (and hastily) constructed dressing rooms. Scotsman David Robertson and his team stand on the artificial turf, watching players battle each other in a training game.
On November 6, the stadium will be packed to the brim, as will the terraces of the mosque next door, probably the hillock overlooking the ground as well. On that day, Real Kashmir will walk out for the first top-flight game played in the valley.
On the touchline, the club’s co-owner Shamim Meraj surveys proceedings. “It’s all on the internet, man!” he replies with a tinge of irritation when asked how he founded the club two years ago with his friend Sandeep Chattoo. Indeed, few stories in Indian sport have been as discussed in recent months as that of this club and its players rising from nothingness, forced to train under the shadow of guns and violence. CNN and BBC featured them. As his players walk off the field for a drinks break, Meraj glances across at a foreign documentary crew filming proceedings.
Deliberately or otherwise, the story of the Snow Leopards is littered with symbolism. It was founded by Meraj, the scion of a Muslim newspaper-owning family, and Chattoo, a Hindu hotel entrepreneur. Casting shadows on the ground that they will play on is a mosque and an ancient temple Shankaracharya visited in the ninth century. Right from the start, Real Kashmir were in a hurry, as if to make up for lost time. If you thought qualifying for the I-League within two years of formation was remarkable, wait till you hear about their first competitive game as a club in the Durand Cup.
The obstacles that the club and players have to surmount on a daily basis are a reflection of the ones that plague life in the valley. Club officials struggle to send documents to league officials in New Delhi whenever an encounter leads to the internet being taken off. Midfielder Shahnawaz Bashir, when he turned up for the I-League launch function in New Delhi a couple of weeks ago, spoke of how he would take a ferry to practise during curfews. Another youngster Danish Farooq has, in the past, talked about being detained by forces on his way to practice.
But Farooq, who they now call ‘the Kashmiri Ronaldo’, is tired of going back into his past. He’d much rather talk about the future. And unlike Shafinari and Nazir Ahmed, his dreams aren’t tethered to the ground. “I want to show everyone that we too are good enough to hang with the best in the country,” he says. “And then in the future, I want to play for the biggest clubs, maybe in the Indian Super League. Hopefully get into the national team as well.”
As he pauses to catch his breath, Farooq looks around and allows himself to be lost in his imagination. “When we play Churchill, these stands will be packed,” he smiles. “We’re going to have to turn people away.”And somewhere, Cecil Tyndale-Biscoe will look down on that scene and allow himself a smile, thinking about the day he struggled to get four people together to kick a ball.