These are turbulent times for Kashmir with reports of tension emerging from the Valley on an almost daily basis. But trickling in between the bad news of late is a steady stream of heart-warming stories about a bunch of Kashmiri footballers who are getting ready to play on the highest stage of Indian football—the I-League.
Real Kashmir FC sought to be a model for the rest of the state from the very beginning. It was founded by a Muslim newspaper owner and a Hindu hotel entrepreneur—Shamim Meraj and Sandeep Chattoo—who wanted their venture to be a beacon of religious unity in the troubled Valley. In only a few years, the team has now managed to qualify for Indian football’s top tier by winning the I-League second division. Their first match will come later this week against Minerva Punjab in Chandigarh. Then next week will see a historic first-ever game in Srinagar.
The state government has chipped in by constructing new dressing rooms at the TRC Turf Ground. Amid militancy and shutdowns, football fever is slowly gripping Srinagar, with a preparatory tournament held recently drawing bigger crowds than many of the top division games. Club officials now expect the stadium to be packed to the brim in the opening game against Churchill Brothers.
Then there are the Kashmiri youngsters who are part of the team, many of whom have emerged despite the lack of infrastructure and the uncertainty in the Valley. The team’s coach David Robertson was caught marvelling at how the region could produce so much talent despite having only a single proper turf for the youngsters to play on. One of them, Danish Farooq, has already caught the eye of football fans all over the country with his displays in the second division, and he has been branded the “Kashmiri Ronaldo”. Sport, they say, has the unique ability to build bridges. Developing it in Kashmir could go a long way towards healing a lot of the turmoil that the Valley is going through.