It’s snowing in Srinagar in February, but 25000 fans have packed into the TRC ground to watch the home team. As the fans’ chants grow louder through the game, the team’s homegrown star scores. The roar of approval from the stands echo in the snow-capped hills. Real Kashmir are back at the top of the points table of the I-League.
In their debut season in 2017-18, Real Kashmir defeated far more experienced sides to win the second division and became the first club from the state to play in the premier division of the I-League. The side topped the points table for most of their debut season, eventually finishing third in 2018-19.
“Real Kashmir is bringing a smile to people of a depressed place. For two hours whenever we play, people forget their grief and remorse, and come to the stadium to see them play,” says Shamim Mehraj, the team’s co-founder and co-owner, during an interview in Delhi.
“And if in such circumstances, we can perform as a football team with very little resources, it’s a story that evokes a lot of hope and joy. If we can do that, we can inspire others to also do the same,” he says.
Despite the security clampdown in Jammu and Kashmir after the withdrawal of the special status of the state on August 5, the team has continued to power forward. The side left for West Bengal to participate in the Durand Cup where they beat I-League champions Chennai City two days later.
“We are the only football club in the world functioning without phones and internet,” says Mehraj. “Currently, our players include foreign ones who only speak to their families once a day. Yet, they are so committed to the club that despite what is going on, they still want to play for Real Kashmir.”
Born after a flood
In 2014, Mehraj spoke to his businessman-friend Sandeep Chattoo about what they could do to help the people of the Valley after the disastrous floods that killed nearly 300 and damaged property worth millions of Rupees.
“The idea of starting a small football team came because that’s when I saw a lot of kids get into substance abuse, drugs and that kind of stuff. My idea was never an I-league club,” says Mehraj, who used to work as a journalist.
“So after that, I told a friend of mine and we got some 1000 footballs from Delhi and we started distributing them. Then I said why don’t we start a football club. He (Chattoo) said fine, but we needed resources,” he says.
With the then PDP-BJP state government refusing to help with funds, the duo invested their own money into starting the team, which was given its name to reflect the ‘essence of Kashmir’.
It was an unlikely partnership between Mehraj, who is a Muslim, and Chattoo, who is from the Pandit community, thousands of whom left their homes in Kashmir in the 1990s. “To be honest when we founded the club we never thought that he is a Pandit or I am a Muslim…It was just two friends getting together to start something. We never looked at it from a Kashmir Pandit-Muslim story,” says Mehraj.
He admits Chattoo may have agreed to form the club due to their friendship, but is now firmly in the driving seat of the club. “Three years ago he would not have thought of running this, and now he is more passionate about this than perhaps I am,” says Mehraj.
Initially, Mehraj and Chattoo set up basic training sessions for those who were interested. Then they found and roped in Scottish coach David Robertson. Robertson, who played for Glasgow Rangers and Leeds United as a left-back, had coached American club Phoenix FC in Arizona for 10 years.
Initially, the team’s coach stayed with Mehraj while the players were adjusted in a hotel owned by Chattoo. After his arrival, the 50-year old coach figured that there was no dearth of talent in the Valley, but the players lacked exposure.
Robertson wanted his boys not to be limited to the Valley and soon after the team was formed took a carefully selected squad to Scotland for friendly matches in the summer of 2016. Real Kashmir won two of its four matches and then travelled to Germany next summer.
Robertson’s initial plan was to let the team find its momentum before entering competitive football, but the side’s victories abroad gave the squad the confidence to change its plans.
Before Real Kashmir, the region’s only professional team was Lonestar Kashmir, which was created in 2013. Made up of local players, Lonestar made its debut in the second division of the I-League and finished second.
But Real Kashmir were different. Under Robertson’s guidance, the team was strong in defence and conceded few goals. In their I-League debut season, they let in 14 goals, the fewest by any team. They maintained a clean sheet in nine of 19 matches.
The jump into the I-League was accompanied by a sponsorship deal from sporting major Adidas and big clubs coming to Kashmir. Home fans were now calling the squad the Snow Leopards.
Midfielder Danish Farooq Bhat, who is now a local star, says he never saw such crowds as large as those that turned up for the team’s first home game.
“When we played the first match at home, even we didn’t know we would get so much crowd there. When we were changing in the dressing room, we heard a loud noise coming from outside. Everyone went looking as to what it was,” he says.
Mason Robertson says he was warned by his father – the team’s manager – about the situation in the state before he joined the team as a midfielder, but maintains it was among the best decisions he has taken.
“I think Real Kashmir means a lot to the people of the Valley. I think it’s a great game for them. You see in every game we are getting 25,000 fans and before them, there wasn’t quite much. I think it has turned into a big football place,” Robertson says.
Bhat says the support of the fans resulted in him turning down offers from Indian Super League clubs.
“Not everyone knew me in the Valley earlier. Only after I joined the club did people find out about me. I don’t know what they feel about me but whenever I come to the ground, they cheer for me. It feels good,” he says. “Real Kashmir means everything to me, an opportunity to show my talent. So right now, I would say Real Kashmir has given everything to me.
Subhash Singh, who joined the squad from NEROCA FC in July, said the Snow Leopards are a close-knit squad. “Before the Durand Cup match, we prayed together. We go for practice in Srinagar early in the morning. Evenings are free and we can opt for a swim,” says Singh.
Mason agrees, adding that the team is now a ‘big family.’ “The team is getting along together. We are always together. In our success last year, we were all in it together,” he says.
A video that emerged on the team’s Instagram handle showed the team’s players dancing together after a victory. “Danish, Hamid, Krizo dance to Kuduro’s French music, even though Danish has no idea what is going on. Just dancing. It’s a good laugh for me,” says Masod. Mehraj points out the impact the team has had on a state that hasn’t seen normalcy in a while.
“It is the only good thing out of Kashmir that is getting international attention. Every player wants to be known and be written about. So it just makes them more competitive. It is too good a story to be allowed to wither away,” he says.