Teams making maiden top-flight appearances is no new thing for the I-League. Bengaluru FC, Aizawl FC, Minerva Punjab, NEROCA FC, Gokulam Kerala are all teams that made their top-flight debuts over the last five years. Real Kashmir are filling in the role of I-League newbies this season and the uniqueness of what they bring to the table lies in their name. They are the first team to represent the state of Jammu and Kashmir in the I-League. “In Kashmir, football is the no.1 sport,” says midfielder Shahnawaz Bashir.
Bashir, who was in New Delhi for the launch of the new I-League season, knows the importance of having a team from the state play in the top flight. “It is the first time that a team from Kashmir has got a platform like this,” he said. “Youngsters in the state can use it to go on and play for the national team and make a name for themselves.” The 30-year-old has played in the I-League before – he was part of the Mumbai FC team that played in 2011/12 season – and joined Real Kashmir in 2016 after three years with Lonestar Kashmir.
“I had played in Lonestar before this. Everyone has always wanted a team from Kashmir play in the top division. We were not able to do it at Lonestar or in my the first year at Real Kashmir,” he said. Enter David Robertson, a former Scotland international who gave Real Kashmir the push they required to make it into the top fight. “Robertson came in and he made a lot of changes in the way we train and play. He helped us improve not only as individuals but as a team, We worked very hard last year and finally, we got ourselves in the I-League,” said Bashir.
Real Kashmir’s success, according to Bashir, is a “gateway” for youngsters from the state to find their way into the mainstream football setup of the country. “Kids who come into the age-group setup of Real Kashmir are not just from Srinagar but from all over the state,” he said. “If any of them manage to make it to the national team or get selected to play for one of the teams in the Indian Super League, it will be a matter of pride for all of us. Staying in the I-League is hence top priority for us this season as we don’t want that gateway to close for these kids.”
Bashir’s journey in the sport started when he was 12 years old. “I joined the academy of J&K Bank. At the time we didn’t have too many facilities or means of exposure there. From there I joined the J&K Forest Department,” he said. Bashir still works as a senior accountant at the Accountant General’s office in Srinagar. “It is a 9 to 5 job but I am allowed to go a little late. I train with the team between 8am and 10am and then rush to work every day.”
It is a balancing act that he is used to now. Adjustments are something that players like Bashir have had to make throughout their careers in multiple avenues, including the route they use to get to their football grounds. For no aspect of life in Srinagar is left untouched by the volatility swirling in the state and football is no different. On the day that the I-League launch was taking place, a pre-season friendly between Minerva Punjab and Real Kashmir in Srinagar was canceled due to restrictions placed in parts of the city due to the visit of Home Minister Rajnath Singh. “Hum adjust kar lete hain,” he said. “It may look strange from the outside but we don’t really let these things affect our game.”
Bashir also believes that the volatility in the city won’t affect the I-League matches that will be hosted there. After Real Kashmir’s first game in Chandigarh against defending champions Minerva Punjab, they are slated to play six matches in Srinagar between November 6 and December 11. “It is exciting,” he says while talking about hosting I-League teams in the city. “People are crazy about football and the stadium will be packed for the match.”