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The beginnings, 2016 onw
Amid infiltrations, terror attacks and talk of surgical strikes, a Kashmiri Muslim and his Pandit friend have joined hands to promote football in the Valley. Meet Shamim Meraj and Sandeep Chattoo, co-owners of I-League newbie Real Kashmir FC.
The duo formed the club in 2016 after seeing the plight of the youth during the 2014 floods. Most playgrounds were submerged and youngsters were left at a loose end. But to make the club work, they needed to cross invisible red lines, particularly those drawn by religion and politics. Football emerged as common ground. “We wanted to channelise the energy of Kashmiri youths in a positive way. That’s why the idea of forming a club,” Meraj, an alumnus of St Stephen’s College, Delhi, recalls.
“Shamim and I have done it together, as a Hindu and a Muslim,” chips in Chattoo. “We want to make a difference; we want to bring a football revolution in Kashmir. We want to make the Paradise on Earth a paradise for football.”
Shamim is editor of his family-owned local newspaper Kashmir Monitor; Sandeep is a local hotelier. In just two years, the club has made history by making it to the top division of I-League, India’s domestic football tournament.
‘We want to show Kashmir’s real face’
The club also has over 3,000 youngsters from various areas of Kashmir enrolled in its grassroots academy.
“There is craze for the game and also talent. That’s the real face of Kashmir and we have shown that real face to the world by winning the second division league and qualifying for the I-League,” Chattoo adds.
“We want youth to take up football instead of pelting stones.”
The club’s name is not on the lines of Spanish football giant Real Madrid, Chattoo explains. “We want to show the Kashmir’s real face with boys and kids playing football just like any other part of the country. Hence the name Real Kashmir.”
Talking about the team and staff’s diverse composition, Meraj says, “I am a Kashmiri Muslim, Sandeep a Kashmiri Pandit. We have Africans, Scotsmen, Hindus and Muslims; players are from different linguistic backgrounds. All of them playing for a team based out of Kashmir is a great example of how football can transcend barriers.”
Infrastructural and financial issues persist. There is no designated football stadium. The team practises at the TRC Turf Ground in Srinagar, which doesn’t even have toilets. With just weeks to go for the 2018-19 season of the I-League, the club is yet to get a sponsor.
“We still don’t have sponsors. It’s difficult to run a professional football team like this,” rues Meraj. But both Chattoo and Meraj say they are living their dream. “Now, we just need wings to fly,” signs off Chattoo.
Arrival at the national level
Becomes First Team From The Valley To Qualify For I-League
Kashmir’s gain was Delhi’s loss as Eid came a week early in Srinagar.
Real Kashmir qualified for the I-League after getting past Delhi’s Hindustan FC 3-2 in the second division league at the FSV Arena in Bengaluru. David Robertson’s side needed only a point to win the title and promotion on the final day of the season and they delivered a clinical performance to blank Hindustan FC. The 49-year old Robertson is a Scottish-born defender who spent his playing days with Aberdeen, Rangers FC, Leeds United and Montrose.
Real Kashmir scored through Ifham Tariq Mir (22nd), Danish Farooq (42nd ) and Nadong Bhutia (67th) while Kushant Chauhan (34th & 80th) was on target for Hindustan FC.
“It is the biggest and happiest occasion for the people of Kashmir since independence,” former international Ishfaq Ahmed told TOI from Srinagar.
Ishfaq, the speedy winger who played for Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and India, is currently in Srinagar on a holiday and said he could feel the joy among the people. “It is trending on Facebook and I am getting congratulatory calls from across the country. It is difficult to put into words the joy that the Real Kashmir boys have brought home.”
The All India Football Federation (AIFF) president Praful Patel also sent his greetings. “Congratulations Real Kashmir FC for becoming the first club from Kashmir to qualify for the I-League. I am sure the achievement will inspire the youth to take up the beautiful game,” he said in a statement.
It was the third meeting between the two teams. In the group-league stage, Real Kashmir held Hindustan FC 3-3 in Srinagar and in the return leg in the Capital, the score was 0-0.
Ishfaq’s friend Shamim Mehraj, is the heart and soul of the club which played in the Durand Cup in 2016. Mehraj runs Kashmir Monitor, a daily newspaper. Real Kashmir played the second division in 2016-17 and in the very next season, they have made the cut.
“People know a couple of sportspersons from Kashmir. Mehrajuddin Waddo, Parvez Rasool and myself. But now they will know a whole lot of them,” said Ishfaq. “It is an opportunity for the Kashmiri boys to showcase their talent at home. They do not have to leave for Kolkata as we had to.”
What Ishfaq is looking forward to is how the state association will manage a full season next year. “We only had exhibition matches in Srinagar. Mohun Bagan and Mohammedan Sporting came to play. But now it will be a full season. Major renovation work in the Bakshi stadium is needed. The state government and law-enforcing authorities will also have to chalk out plans to host 10 matches atleast over a period of four months. The biggest teams of the country will be coming to play in Srinagar. It is a huge responsibility and a great challenge.”
It was Real Kashmir who broke the deadlock in the 22nd minute. Ivorian Kouassi Yao started the move and it was finished by Tariq.
IFA Shield final: RK’s first major win
Real Kashmir win IFA Shield final, their first major:
Real Kashmir FC clinched their maiden major trophy by lifting the IFA Shield after beating George Telegraph 2-1 in the summit clash in Kolkata on Saturday. Fresh from a hat-trick against Mohammedan Sporting in the semifinals, Nigerian forward Lukman Adefemi broke the deadlock (38th minute) from a penalty but the Georgians restored parity with a terrific solo run by substitute Gautam Das (50th). But skipper Mason Robertson snatched the winner for the Real Kashmir.
Documentary on Real Kashmir nominated for BAFTA awards
Srinagar-based football club Real Kashmir FC has been gaining new grounds ever since its inception. The club’s performance in its debut I-League season (2018-19), where it stayed in the title race till the final round and finally finished third, was straight out of a fairytale. Now, as an icing on the cake, a BBC documentary on Real Kashmir has earned two nominations in the prestigious British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) film awards in Scotland.
The documentary has been nominated in two categories. The director Greg Clark got a nod in the ‘Director-Factual’ category, while the show will battle it out in the ‘Single Documentary’ category. The storyline of the documentary is around Aberdeen and Rangers legend David Robertson, who is the chief coach of Real Kashmir. It’s about Robertson’s journey from Scotland to Kashmir, and how he mentored aspiring footballers from the war-torn Valley and spurred them to gain success in Indian football.
The documentary is hourlong and was made with a shoestring budget of approximately 120,000 pounds (Rs 1 crore, 4 lakh). In comparison, another BBC documentary on English football club Manchester City required 20 times more budget.
“Despite all the unrest in the region, home matches of Real Kashmir during the I-League attracted more than 20,000 people. This documentary is about football’s popularity in Kashmir and how the game unites everyone. This nomination is something to be proud of for the club,” director Greg Clark told TOI.
David, who joined Real Kashmir in January 2017, was quite emotional about his journey with the club. “I do miss home — there’s only so many years or so much time I can continue doing what I’m doing but there’s still a lot to give,” David told TOI.
“There’s going to be a day when I want to go back (to Scotland) or they (Real Kashmir) don’t want me or I’ve just had enough. But at the moment it’s enjoyable, it’s fun. I am the only coach they’ve ever had, and I think I would find it very difficult to see someone else coach the team. It’s an emotional attachment to the whole thing, the whole adventure. We have had a lot of challenges to overcome and I am proud of what the club has achieved. I would hate to turn my back on them,” he added.
Real Kashmir’s owners – Shamim Meraj and Sandeep Chattoo – were enthusiastic over the nomination. Shamim said, “Over the last 50 days or so, Kashmir is cut off from the rest of the country. In such circumstances, this news has brought about a smile on the faces of not only us but also our players. It’s a proud moment.”
Chattoo shared Shamim’s views. “It feels surreal when a documentary on your club gets nominated under two categories (at the BAFTA). Thanks to everyone who has watched it,” he said. “Recently we played a pre-season match against ISL club Jamshedpur FC in Jamshedpur and held them to a 3-3 draw. Many players of our team got to know about it (the nomination) after the match. Our Kashmiri players have been on the road. We in the management try and make sure they get news about their families. They’re happy that the world (through the documentary) has got to know about the club and them.”
Shamim Meraj, co-founder, quits
When a Kashmiri Muslim man and his Pandit friend joined hands to promote football in Kashmir even as the Valley battled infiltrations and terror attacks, it seemed sport had blurred the invisible lines in the disturbed region, including those drawn by religion and politics. Shamim Meraj and Sandeep Chattoo formed Real Kashmir FC in 2016, and within a couple of years the club participated in the I-League (in 2018-19). The club finished third in its debut season and is now a force in Indian football.
On Monday, Shamim, who is the editor of the Kashmir Monitor newspaper, informed TOI that he has ended his four-year association with Real Kashmir. He cited “personal reasons” for leaving the club. “People come and go, but institutions should remain,” Shamim said. He unequivocally rejected reports which suggested he left the club due to growing differences with the team management and that he didn’t like coach David Robertson’s style of football and wanted the club to adopt a more entertaining style. “These are juicy stories, nothing else,” he stated.
Both Shamim and Chattoo refuted any discord between them. “Our friendship is still the same. That is unrelated to what we do professionally,” said Shamim.
“We remain together. Only professionally, he has left us. He is as close to me as he was when he was part of RKFC. Personally, the Hindu-Muslim combine remains the same. We meet every other day... discuss the situation in the state,” said Chattoo.
“I tried to persuade him to continue, tried really hard... but I feel he had made up his mind last year. Especially, after Article 370 was revoked by the Centre in Jammu and Kashmir. You must have seen, I was all by myself in the last season,” Chattoo elaborated.
Recently, a senior Kashmiri leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party Wasim Bari, his brother and his father were killed by militants in Bandipora area. In the last few years, there has been a spate of killings of mainstream Kashmiri leaders, academicians and social workers who have taken a stance against terrorism in the Valley. In the past, Shamim too has had multiple assassination attempts on his life. He is an influential person in the Valley and often travels with bodyguards.
“We all know Kashmir is a sensitive place. At the end of the day, Real Kashmir is an Indian football club representing Kashmir. There are lots of complex issues here (in Kashmir), which the people from the rest of the country would not understand. So, let it be,” a person close to Chattoo and Shamim, said.
Shamim and Chattoo formed the club in 2016 after witnessing the plight of the youth two years earlier during the devastating 2014 floods in Kashmir.