BENGALURU : At first glance, football and Jammu & Kashmir might seem strange bedfellows. With conflict, curfews and the turmoil in the valley, the sport has taken a backseat. Perhaps, that’s the reason why the state has only produced two prominent footballers in recent times — Ishfaq Ahmed and Mehrajuddin Wadoo. But success stories do emerge even from the most unusual of places. In 2015, football fans were ecstatic when Lonestar Kashmir came close to securing a promotion to the I-League.
But they ended up finishing runners-up to eventual I-League champions Aizawl FC in the Second Division. However, that inspired many, even their rivals Real Kashmir who are etching their own fairytale this season. Coached by former Scotland left-back David Robertson, RKFC finished third in Group A last season and failed to progress to the final round on goal difference but they have been a revelation of sorts this season.
While Lonestar finished rock-bottom failing to win a single game, RKFC remained unbeaten, managing 22 points from 10 games to top Group A in the preliminary rounds. So what has changed? It’s the mentality and fighting spirit, says Robertson, who also enjoyed an unbeaten run of 44 games during his playing days at Rangers. “The level of commitment these boys show is unbelievable. The way they fought back from 0-3 down against Hindustan FC to draw the game or win the game against Ozone after being a goal down surprised even me,” Robertson says.
“I share a lot of stories of my time with Rangers with these boys. The team we had in 1992-93 wasn’t great but still, we refused to surrender and went on to remain unbeaten in 44 games, which was remarkable. I’m trying to instil the belief in these boys here.” It is not easy to make a team worthy of a place in the country’s top league. There are hardships which Real Kashmir and Kashmiris face every day but Robertson has managed to make a bunch of them focus on football.
“The time I have spent in Kashmir, I loved every day. But does that mean there aren’t any problems? No, there are. There are curfews which hinder daily lives but we need a purpose to let those go and focus on something else. Football is providing them that there. Even a local derby against Lonestar feels like a Rangers- Celtic derby in the valley,” the Scot says. Only time will tell if Real Kashmir can become the first club from Kashmir to play in the I-League. But the enthusiasm they have generated can inspire generations. Perhaps in near future, there will be many Ishfaqs and Mehrajuddins in country’s top league and the national team. firstname.lastname@example.org