Farhan Ahmed Ganai woke up to the constant buzzing of his mobile phone. He didn’t have to look at the screen to know who it was. Basalat Shah, his close friend, would wake Ganai up on most days. But Basalat’s message this time surprised Ganai. “He said to hurry up because there were no cops. We could have a clear drive to the stadium,” recalls Ganai, just a day ahead of making his second division I-League debut.
Among Lonestar Kashmir FC’s latest batch of players, Ganai’s first reaction was to curse himself.
He claims to normally be very punctual with the self-smuggling role he and his teammate at the second division I-League club conduct — due to the ever-present curfew in their locality on the outskirts of Srinagar. There was no time to waste pondering over the tardiness though. He found the messy pile of clothes in his room and threw it in his bag.
Meanwhile, Balasat was already rapping on Ganai’s second-floor window. The 18-year-old joined his neighbour on the slanted tin roof. Creeping to the edge, the pair made no hesitation on their jump to the surface — a good 15 metres below.
The keys to the strategically parked motorcycle were immediately produced, and the teenaged pair made the long 10 kilometre drive to the TRC Polo Ground. No cops on the route, as scouted from Balasat’s second-storey bedroom, meant the duo could risk a short-cut. There would be no hiccups the entire day. “Except that in my hurry I forgot to pack my football shoes,” Ganai mentions. “And my jersey was missing too,” he adds, laughing.
For Ganai, sneaking out during curfew hours so that he can join his teammates for practice is a daily affair. He’d coordinate with Basalat over the phone to warn each other of police position. Then Basalat would crawl out of his window and make his way across the adjoining rooftops to Ganai’s window, directly under which the motorcycle is parked.
Ever since Ganai started harbouring hopes of playing football professionally, he realised the need to perfect the art of ‘smuggling’ himself to the football ground before he could practice his domination on the team’s defensive structure. Hailing from an area where a curfew runs from seven in the morning to seven at night, for at least three days a week, Ganai has been sneaking out from his window on the second floor, making the jump and then the drive to the practice ground for the past five years. The defender jokes that timing his jump to win headers has been secondary — the primary goal was to time his jump from the second floor and make a clean landing.
Caught in the cross-fire
The practiced bravado, however, doesn’t just stop after making it to the vehicle. “Sometimes, we used to get stuck in stone-pelting, at times when security forces hurl tear gas,” he says. Consequently, there is always a fear of getting struck in the crossfire. “I got hit on the head once, and on the back another time. I couldn’t practice too well on those days,” he says, going further to mention, sheepishly, that he is yet to purchase a helmet.
Incidentally, those were the only two occasions he’s missed training due to injury. The tall jump at home has never done much to harm him physically. “It’s actually made the bones much stronger,” he adds.
Then there is the issue with the patrolling security forces. He has been caught a few times, but never arrested. “They’d search my bag and only find football shoes and my kit. So they know I’m just going to play. They recognise me now. Some have actually seen me grow up, so they escort me home sometimes,” he explains.
As a child too he’d get into trouble with the police. He’d jump over a fence near his home to play on the available ground with his friends. Those sessions were often disturbed by the authorities invading the pitch to send the children home.
But his transition from being just another kid in the park to being a professional resulted in his stature increasing considerably among the locals.
Head coach Hilal Parray explains that football within the state remains in a bubble. Yet the club is seen as a route to the outside world. “With that mentality, fans and people in the city know the players well. And they come often to support them even for friendly games,” says Parray.
Ganai’s parents too recognise the club as their youngest child’s only way to play at a higher level. Though they don’t openly promote his air-borne exploits en-route to his motorcycle, his father, who runs a butcher’s shop, supports the maintenance of the vehicle.
Now on the verge of making his senior team debut in Mumbai against Kenkre FC on Monday, Ganai still wishes he had more time to strengthen his game before leaving the junior team. “Most of the time went by plotting escape routes to go to the stadium,” he laments.
Yet in terms of his radical methods, there are no regrets. “I do get scared at times when I’m sneaking out. But then I’m plotting to play football. There is no harm in that,” he adds.