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How Real Kashmir FC gave wings to Kashmiri youths’ love for football

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Srinagar, Feb 10: In Kashmir's over three decade long trauma of pain and suffering, there have been very few occasions that could cheer up the common man. The founding of the Real Kashmir Football Club (FC) is one such event that the common Kashmiri is feeling happy and proud about.

After emerging as champions of the I-League 2nd Division in 2017-2018, the team kept itself in title contention for the 1st Division as well after beating table-toppers Chennai City FC for the second time. 

Real Kashmir's performance has given new hope to the people of the valley who throng to the stadiums to watch their youth set the ground on fire with their skills.

Football has been a popular sport in the valley since the 1960s. The matches of many local teams would be largely attended and cheered by Kashmiris in the 1960s, 70s and till the late 1980s when armed insurgency broke out putting a stop to both sports and entertainment.

Local football teams like those of the Transport, Food Supplies and Police Departments have been the traditional rivals of yore in the valley. Local football players and lovers had hardly dreamt of competitions outside the state, much less something as prestigious as the I-League matches.

The creation of Real Kashmir FC has given wings to the flight of local football players' and sports lovers' imagination in Kashmir. Scores of Kashmiris cutting across the social divide have been attending the matches played at the astroturf tourist reception centre (TRC) ground in Srinagar.

With a capacity of 15,000 spectators, the TRC ground is owned by the Jammu and Kashmir Football Association and is the home ground for Real Kashmir FC for the 2018-2019 I-League season.

"We always believed that there was huge potential among our boys to play first class football. Founding of Real Kashmir FC proved us right," said Professor Muzaffar Ahmad, retired college principal and football enthusiast.

Others believe the lack of opportunities wasted the talent of local boys over the years and this has been proved by the laurels being won by the team now.

"We had nothing to hone the talent of our football players. Football was played by barefooted boys on uneven grounds during the few summer months. And whatever the boys picked up during the summer months was forgotten during the harsh winters in the valley," said Shabir Ahmed of old city Srinagar, who has not missed a single match played by the team so far.

"Founding a professional football team with all the facilities needed for honing the talent of our football players is a credit that will always go to Real Kashmir FC, its owners, coach and above all, to its players."

Nicknamed the Snow Leopards, the Srinagar-based football club was founded in 2016. Real Kashmir FC is the first team from Kashmir to compete in the I-League, the first division of football in India.

In 2016, Real Kashmir FC participated in its first national level competition in the Durand Cup. Success came rather quickly to the team, thanks to the hard work of the team's players and the efforts of its coach, David Robertson, a former Rangers and Aberdeen player.

In 2017, Real Kashmir FC became the first Jammu and Kashmir football club to play in Scotland. 

The team emerged as champions of the I-League 2nd Division in 2017-2018. This victory earned the team entry into the I-League 1st Division in 2018. 

Team owners Shamim Mehraj and Sandeep Chattoo have been working tirelessly to see the club earn laurels and set up the tradition of first class football in the state. Real Kashmir upstaged Chennai City FC for the second time and kept themselves in title contention with a 1-0 victory over the table-toppers in a crucial I-League match played in Srinagar on January 28. The team played out a 1-1 draw with Churchill Brothers in their 15th round I-League match in Goa on January 31 as both sides missed out on a chance to go to the top of the points table. 

Real Kashmir FC and Churchill Brothers were in third and second spots respectively with 29 points each.

However, the Snow Leopard's victory in the last match against Gokulam Kerala helped them briefly climb to the top spot with 32 points. Chennai FC reclaimed the top position after a 2-0 win over Indian Arrows on February 8.

Chennai City FC, whom Real Kashmir have beaten twice this season, are leading the table with 33 points from 15 matches. But with 32 points in 16 matches, the Snow Leopards are strong contenders to lift the trophy. They play a crucial match against East Bengal on Sunday and a victory would again take them to the top of the table. 

To encourage the team and help it meet the requirements of a first class football club in the country, state Governor Satya Pal Malik gave a Rs 2 crore cheque to the team after an exhibition match in Jammu recently.

"We have a long way to go as our dreams and aspirations are to see the club top the tables in the country and outside. Thanks to the efforts of our coach and the hard work put in by our boys, tomorrow definitely belongs to Real Kashmir FC," said team co-owner, Shamim Mehraj.

His words indicate that the club has set itself lofty goals that need tireless pursuit.