Everything was as perfect as perfect can be. Even nature played ball – after a freezing few days, the sun finally decided to show up. But when the time came for kickoff, the organisers, it turned out, had forgotten one of the most important things – the playing kits. “We got everything done in the last few days but forgot our kits,” Real Kashmir coach David Robertson smiles.
However, overcoming all hiccups, big ones and small, Real Kashmir made its I-League home debut against Churchill Brothers on a most beautiful day for football. Just a couple of days ago, the TRC ground was enveloped in snow. On Tuesday, it was bathed in light sunshine under the shadow of a mosque and the Shankaracharya – the structures that add to the symbolism that’s become synonymous with this club. The rugged beauty is only enhanced by the snowy hills, which shimmered in the sun on one side and flaming-red Chinar on the other. And of course, the omnipresent, gun-toting men in uniform, providing a security cover rather unprecedented for an I-League match.
— Mihir Vasavda (@mihirsv) 6 November 2018
The match, alas, wasn’t as dramatic as the setting. It was a dull, goalless draw that had occasional moments of mild excitement. But then, this wasn’t just about football. This was about Kashmir showing that it, too, can host a match of some significance. This was about a generation of Kashmiri players who’ve suffered the consequences of the Valley’s volatile situation. This was about reigniting the hopes of a state, using football as a medium.
A win for Real Kashmir would’ve, of course, led to unimaginable celebrations. When the team won the second division title in Bangalore, thousands were expected to flood the streets to welcome their heroes. But a curfew was imposed, and the players paraded on the deserted streets of Srinagar.
They wanted to make up for it today. But strangely, the build-up on match-day was rather lukewarm.
The stadium was largely empty an hour before kickoff; barely 500 fans were in, in fact. One started to wonder if the organisers had overstated the hype. Some, though, had made journeys from far-off places just for the one game. Obaid Mir had travelled 80km from a village near Pulwama. He reaches the stadium an hour early and sat right beneath the broadcast tower in the Late Farooq Ahmed Stand. Whether it was by design or sheer coincidence, it was easy to typecast the fans based on the stand they were occupying.
The ones in the Shafi Nari Stand, adjacent to the dressing rooms, were youngsters singing club songs and orchestrating choreographed moves, chanting relentlessly for the entire 90 minutes. In the Majeed Kakroo Stand, behind the goalpost, were the agitated, unforgiving folk; the ones who vent out their frustration on the terraces of football stadiums.
Every Churchill touch was met with boos. Their own players, too, aren’t spared. Kashmiris are generous hosts. But that courtesy isn’t extended on the pitch, where hostilities resume the moment the referee blows the whistle.
An atmosphere so surreal that Robertson compared it to the terraces in Scotland. “It reminds me of the crowd at Celtic and Rangers,” said the Glasgow Rangers legend.
The Late Farooq Ahmed Stand, where Mir sat, is where old-timers converge. They’re here mostly for the football, it doesn’t matter which way the result swings. “Football is our only passion,” he said as others around him nodded in affirmation. To illustrate his point, Mir narrated a story from the 60s. “I don’t know how true it is,” he began with a disclaimer, “but I’ve heard that back in the 60s, some 10,000 people went to Bakshi Stadium with lanterns in their hands so that a match could take place in the evening. Imagine the sight!”
By now, the sight at the stadium had turned around too. Suddenly, in the last few minutes, thousands had walked through the tiny metal gate, going through three layers of security in the 50 yards between the entry gates and the stands. According to official figures, 10,521 people were there when the first I-League match in Kashmir kicked off.
Robertson’s team may not be the most talented in the I-League. But Robertson’s Davids are surely the most stubborn bunch you’ll come across. They’re brawlers who won’t shy away from a tackle. Fighters – as Robertson describes them – who’ll leave it all on the field.
Muhammad Hammad, a cricketer-turned-footballer, wouldn’t allow any crosses from the left. Danish Farooq, the grey-eyed forward with Persian features and a crowd favourite, ran Churchill defenders ragged. And in goal, Bilal Husain Khan would not let anything past him. The foreigners imposed themselves physically. Bazie Armand, the Ivory Coast player, bossed the midfield using his muscular frame while Scottish defender Mason Robertson, the coach’s son, won almost every aerial battle.
Churchill Brothers are no pushovers. They, in fact, are one of the strong favourites to win the title this season and also played like one in the early exchanges. But Kashmir, playing only their second game at this level, forced them into making some rash decisions. Like the incident in the 37th minute, when Kashmir’s Zambian forward Aaron Katebe beat the defence line with a nicely-timed run to be one-on-one with goalkeeper James Kithan. Kithan rushed out of his box to close Katebe’s angle, but in the heat of the moment, he stopped the ball with his hand and brought the striker down. Referee Tanmoy Dhar didn’t hesitate much in flashing the red card, leaving Churchill with 10 men with almost an hour left to play.
That Kashmir couldn’t take advantage of it was because of their profligacy in front of goal. Gnohere Krizo constantly got into good scoring positions but hit the post a couple of times. On other occasions, he was slow to pull the trigger or just hopelessly off the mark. His performance irritated those in the Kakroo stand, with chants of “khar… khar!” (Donkey in local language) repeatedly directed against him.
Once the emotions related to Kashmir’s I-League debut get out of the way, and results start to matter, one wonders if Robertson will want to focus on this aspect of his side. Against Minerva Punjab, too, their wastefulness in the attacking third was glaring. Against bigger teams and tougher defences, Kashmir’s task is only going to get tougher.
But on Tuesday, they weren’t complaining. They were just happy to be playing at home again.