Kashmir FC give ‘Real’ hope to troubled region

Scott McIntyre Scott McIntyre

Scott McIntyre brings us a heart-warming story of how football unites from one of the world’s most isolated regions.

The first thing that most people think of when they hear the name ‘Kashmir’ is of the decades-long conflict between India and neighbouring Pakistan over the region, with frequent bombings and terrorist attacks capturing global headlines.

Back in late May though, amidst the continued struggle, there emerged a remarkable story of a local football club formed only two years that has now won promotion to the top flight of Indian football – the I-League.

If the political conflict that’s ravaged the region isn’t bad enough, devastating floods in 2014 that cost the lives of an estimated 300 people and saw a further 80,000 having to be evacuated, heaped more misery on Kashmir.

From that heartache though rose the team that would become Real Kashmir FC as the man behind the formation of the club, Chairman Shamim Mehraj, told FOX Sports Asia when we spoke on the line from Kashmir.

“We had these terrible floods that impacted so many people and although the area where I lived was spared from the worst of it one night I was out walking with my friend and we saw so many children just lazing about, smoking and wasting their time and so we decided that we needed to do something.”

“We have people from all different religions in our team and football unites everybody so whilst there might be issues with politics we want to show a different version and let people know that Kashmir is not all about violence.”

That something was form a local club to keep those children off the streets and out of trouble and when they applied for a licence through the national body they were more than a little surprised to find out that they’d been invited to join the expanded I-League second division.

Having failed to progress from the preliminary stage of the competition in their first season in 2017, they exceeded even their own expectations this year.

Things got underway as Real Kashmir topped the group stage and they then went undefeated in the final round where a 3-2 win over Hindustan in neutral Bengaluru this week saw them promoted to the I-League in just their second full year of existence.

In the process they’ve become the first ever club from the Jammu & Kashmir region to reach the pinnacle of Indian football and as Mehraj told FOX Sports Asia from the region that’s home to some spectacular valleys on the edge of the Himalayas this has the ability to transform Kashmir.

“What we have done is give the people of Kashmir something to follow and cheer for because a team from this region has never before won a major trophy.

“To do it with a core group of locals gives the boys a platform to excel and show the world that we are a welcoming people.

“We have people from all different religions in our team and football unites everybody so whilst there might be issues with politics we want to show a different version and let people know that Kashmir is not all about violence.”

For a squad that was hastily organised barely two years ago this is truly a remarkable achievement, but rather than taking the credit Mehraj deflects much of that to the coach – former Rangers legend David Robertson who had to be convinced to take on the job having wanting to leave shortly after his arrival.

“He arrived on a cold December evening in 2016 having never been to India before and it was snowing and there was no internet or electricity and he said that he wanted to go home.

“He’d come off a long flight and I told him that there’s no way he’s leaving and took him to my house and he slept for almost 36 hours.

“I said to the boys in the team that I think I’ve got a dead manager in my house, but it turned out wonderful and he still stays in my house now.”

The former defender was also responsible for a historic pre-season tour to Scotland and it was there that this wonderful team spirit was forged for Real Kashmir FC.

In more positive news this week it was announced that the team’s youth squad will travel and have the chance to train with German giants Borussia Dortmund as they aim to become mainstays in the elite tier of Indian football.

They know though that there will be challenges when the season kicks off later this year, especially in terms of budget and resources – and they don’t yet know if they’ll even be able to use their own stadium – but Mehraj holds out hope that their debut I-League season will be a success.

“We are a small club and our stadium doesn’t have any dressing rooms or toilets but the government has promised to help us upgrade it because this story is important for Kashmir and what we have is a home that is as close to the romance of English football that you will get with mountains and snow.

“There is also huge support for the team and I’m sure that we’ll be one of the best supported clubs in the I-League.

“The priority is to make sure we are still in the league at the end of the season and try to win our home matches and get enough points away from to home to survive but for sure we are aiming to follow the success of a club like Aizwal and one day win it all.”

Photos: Courtesy of Scott McIntyre/Real Kashmir FC