They didn’t just dribble past opponents but also the many off-the-pitch obstructions to become Jammu and Kashmir’s first football team in I-League and Real Kashmir FC co-owner Sandeep Chattoo today said his side is now on a mission to make the ‘paradise on earth’ a paradise for the beautiful game. The Srinagar-based outfit yesterday became the first club from the Kashmir valley to qualify for the top tier after winning the second division league by beating Delhi’s Hindustan FC 3-2 in Bengaluru.
The feat of the two-year-old club, coached by former Scotland international and Glasgow Rangers legend David Robertson, is remarkable given that football infrastructure is not exactly the best in the state. They will play in the I-League 2018-19 season starting in September, rubbing shoulders with heavyweights such as Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, who are also expected to turn up in Srinagar.
Chattoo co-owns the club with his business associate Shamim Meraj. “Considering that there is no proper football infrastructure in Kashmir, it is a big achievement for the club to have reached here. But it is just the beginning,” Chattoo told PTI in an interview after the historic performance of his little-known club.
“We want to change the whole scenario, we want to bring a football revolution in Kashmir. We have opened the way. We want to make this Paradise on Earth a Paradise for Football,” he added. He hoped that the success of the team would also inspire the alleged stone-pelters to join the mainstream via sports.
“We want the youth to take up football instead of pelting stones. We want to engage them in football and sports activities and channelise their energy,” said Chattoo, who owns a hotel in Srinagar. Defender and vice-captain Muhammad Hammad, who competed in all the matches in the final round in Bengaluru, agreed and said that the feat will inspire the Kashmiri youth to take up football.
“Our club qualifying for the I-League should inspire them. Clubs like Mohun Bagan and East Bengal will come to play in Srinagar and I hope that should divert their energy to pursuing the sport as a career,” said the 22-year-old B. Com second-year student from Srinagar. The journey to the top tier was, however, far from easy for the side. Hammad recalled how the volatile security situation in the state sometimes affected the team’s routine.
“When we went for training and anticipated that there could be a bandh or strike the next day, we stayed at our owner’s hotel a day before to be safe. The next day we would train,” Hamad said. “But we are used to this and we concentrate on football.”
Chattoo said the Valley loves football and the sport tends to unite people there. He said life becomes as normal as anywhere else in the country during a football match. “When a football match is played, nobody cares about violence or security. Everybody loves to watch a football match,” he asserted.
“There is a craze about the game and also talent in Kashmir. That is the real face of Kashmir and we have shown that real face to the world by winning the second division league and thereby qualifying for the I-League,” he added. Asked why he chose to name his club Real Kashmir FC, Chattoo said, “It is simple, we want to show the real face of Kashmir with boys and kids playing in football just like in any other part of the country not bothering about militancy.”
“We have two foreign players and two foreign coaches (head coach and his assistant). We will increase the number of foreign players to five as we will now play in the I-League,” he said. Chattoo also spoke about the diverse composition of the team and its support staff.
“I am a Kashmiri Pandit (Hindu) and the team’s other co-owner is a Kashmiri Muslim. Then we have two Scottish coaches and a goalkeeper from Punjab. We have a player from Sikkim (Nadong Bhutia) and a quite a lot of players of the Hindu faith,” he said. For Hammad, the ultimate aim is to play for India though he knows that the dream is still some distance away.
“I want to become a professional footballer. I want to play for India one day. I want to play for big clubs of the I-League and ISL,” he said. Asked why he took up the sport, Hammad said he was inspired by former India internationals from Kashmir Mehrajuddin Wadoo and Ishfaq Ahmed. “They are my inspiration. I used to watch them play on television. My parents are very supportive, they never objected to me taking up football,” said Hammad, who played for LoneStar Kashmir in the second division last year.
Hammad rued the lack of infrastructure and urged the state government to upgrade the ground his club is using. The club does not have a ground of its own and the players train at the Tourist Reception Centre (TRC) ground which is an open field without fencing. “There is just one washroom and two very small dressing rooms. I hope the state government acts fast and upgrades the facilities so that I-League matches are held in Srinagar.”
Chattoo hoped the government would urgently upgrade the facilities at the TRC ground. “The players have sometimes cleared snow in the stadium before training. The state government has not been supporting us. Instead, it came up with a team of its own which did not even qualify for any basic round.
“We have three months now to upgrade infrastructure and I am sure the government will grab the opportunity. I am sure I-League matches will be held in Srinagar this year.”