On Sunday, it was difficult to spot the gate of the TRC football ground in Srinagar. Stalls had taken over the street leading to the ground, as they do every week. But on Monday, a day before Real Kashmir plays Mohun Bagan, a makeshift ticket counter was set up beside the main gate of the ground and people stopped by to get passes. On the other side of the gate is a banner that screams: “Welcome to home of champions” that was blocked by vendors’ stalls just a day earlier.
It’s not difficult to tell that something big is happening here and at the centre of it is Real Kashmir FC. For some in Srinagar, this is a reminder of a time when players and teams were worshipped by the city’s residents.
“In the days before satellite television became accessible, people simply remembered the details. They knew the fixtures and the situation of the team in the tournament without the need for charts or tables that are available in today’s age,” said Majid Yousuf, executive director of football for the Jammu and Kashmir Sports Council.
A former player himself, like members in his family, Yousuf recounted a story he had heard about his uncle who used to play for the Road Transport Corporation, the leading team during the heydays of the game in Srinagar.
“He had to play a match the same day he was getting married. Wo match par gaye, aur match jeetne ke baad saare spectators unko ghar tak chodne ke liye aaye (He went for the match and after they won, all the spectators accompanied him back home),” he said.
Yousuf understands the importance of the Srinagar-based team hosting a big club for I-League matches.
“In 2012, we had invited Mohun Bagan and Mohammedan Sporting for playing a few goodwill matches. We had taken care of all their expenses and it came to over Rs 2 crore. Today, Mohun Bagan is coming here, not to play a friendly but for a competitive game. Moreover, Real Kashmir have enough firepower to beat them,” he said.
The turnout for Tuesday’s game is expected to be higher than any previous I-League match held at the ground. However, Yousuf said it’s important to note that those who turn up are fans of the game, and won’t necessarily support Real Kashmir.
“If they (Real Kashmir) frequently have bad results, like the 2-0 loss against NEROCA in the previous match, the crowd won’t take it lightly. In that match itself, people were leaving well before the full-time whistle blew,” he said.
Real Kashmir coach David Robertson also acknowledged this in the pre-match press conference, and admitted many may be turning up to watch Mohun Bagan, a team Srinagar’s football fans know well. Apart from the fact that Mohun Bagan won the Fed Cup in Srinagar in 1986, three of the team’s famous players have come from the state. Ishfaq Ahmed, Mehrajuddin Wadoo and former India captain Abdul Majeed Kakroo, have all played for Bagan.
But Robertson also explained how the Srinagar fans can give the team a boost. Almost a month ago, Real Kashmir beat Bengaluru FC’s ‘B’ team 3-2 in a friendly. “We were 2-1 down. They (the crowd) cheered us on and we went on to win the game 3-2 in extra time. If it wasn’t for them it wouldn’t have happened,” Robertson said.
The coach hopes the team’s supporters will also note the fact that Real Kashmir’s defeat to Neroca was the first in 2018.
“If you listened to what the Neroca coach said after the game, it is an intimidating atmosphere. And if it is full, the place is absolutely bouncing and that just adds pressure on the away team,” he said.
Real Kashmir captain Loveday Enyinnaya has also said the fans who come to the matches in Srinagar understand the game. They know that being 2-1 down in a friendly is different from being 2-0 down in the 73rd minute of an I-League match. In the first case, they stayed and cheered till the end. In the second match, the fans left early to try and beat the city’s traffic snarls. The challenge for Real Kashmir’s players on Tuesday will be getting their fans to stay till the end and brave traffic. After all, there are few better ways to build a fan base in the I-League than by beating clubs like Mohun Bagan at home.