When Amir Rehman, 23, told his family that his football team was going abroad, they thought it was a joke and laughed. Amir’s father Abdul Rehman Dar, a shawl-embroider in Srinagar, could not believe that his son and his team — including an engineer, a delivery boy, a car dealer and a factory worker — were on to anything serious. He knew about Real Kashmir, and that they were part of the I-League Division II, but travelling to Scotland for off-season training sounded unreal. Four months after that trip, Amir and Real Kashmir were in the national capital last weekend, to play friendly matches against some of the city’s top clubs, Delhi United and ISL’s Delhi Dynamos.
Real Kashmir went down in both the games but Amir is unfazed. At least, he says, his father now takes the team seriously. And so does Real Kashmir’s coach, former Scottish international David Robertson. “We are looking really long term. We want to win the second division first so we can qualify for the main I-League,” Robertson told The Indian Express.
If that does happen, it will be a big leap for a team with modest means, started in March last year by Shameem Meraj, owner of the Kashmir Monitor newspaper, and mostly run through donations from businessmen and supporters in Srinagar.
In September, the club got an unexpected shot in the arm when Robertson posted a photo on Twitter of his team training, with Kashmir’s breathtaking scenery in the background. The image caught the attention of former Ghana international Anthony Obodai, a one-time U-17 World Cupper who has played alongside stars like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Wesley Sneijder at Ajax FC.
“David told me about the side and I said ‘if you want my help to build the side, I will come’,” Obodai posted on Facebook.
In Srinagar, defender Amir’s day begins with a practice session at the TRC ground, where slots have to be booked in advance. After training, the 22-year-old fan of Manchester United star Paul Pogba cycles around the city, delivering medicines to local chemists.
“I don’t like it at all. But football alone cannot provide for my family of three. It’s not fun, cycling for kilometres every day through the city. I get so tired at the end of the day but I make sure I reach the ground the next day. I feel rejuvenated,” says Amir.
Amir’s teammate Ishfaq Wani, whose father works as an ATM guard, does not have a day job and relies solely on the salary the club pays him — Rs 10,000 every month. “There are hardly any jobs and I have always been passionate about football. It was my dream to become a professional footballer… When I began playing, as a child with borrowed shows, I could not even afford a bus ride from my home to the stadium. I walked almost 8 km a day to play,” says Ishfaq.
His father was reluctant to let him play, but underwent a change of heart after seeing his son’s commitment. Now, he keenly follows the J&K league matches where Real Kashmir finished second this season.
When midfielder Mir Hanan, one the first footballers from Kashmir to play abroad, returned after a year’s stint with Brazil’s Friburguense Atlético Clube during an exchange programme six years ago, he realised the game could not support him financially. He enrolled for engineering in Bengaluru where he played for the college team. His degree earned him a temporary job in Kashmir but he had to quit last year due to the unrest. “I am still looking for a job,” he says.
It’s not just Mir’s job, the unrest in the Valley after the death of militant Burhan Wani last year brought life to a standstill in Srinagar, halting all sporting activity. “We are used to it now. We can’t do much. We have grown up witnessing such unrest. Six months we are playing, six months we are home,” says Mir, rated as one of the side’s top players.
Then there’s Sameer Khan, a car dealer who plays as a defender, and goalkeeper Safiz Riyaz who works at his family-run leather workshop.
With I-League qualification being the first goal to bring the club into the mainstream, Real Kashmir is slowly building momentum. The club has a managed to build U-19, U-17 and U-14 teams, which are provided free training. More exposure trips are being planned; an assistant coach will be hired soon; a Srinagar milk plant recently came onboard as sponsor; and, talks are on with a London-based firm for more sponsorship.