On October 31, Real Kashmir F.C.—the latest entrants to the premier division of the I-League—will make history when they take on Minerva Punjab F.C. on their home turf—the TRC ground in Srinagar.
The RKFC haven't looked back ever since they topped the second division league in May this year, thus gaining an entry into the I-League, and going by their burgeoning fan base, the stage seems set for football's historic return to the valley.
The RKFC was formed two years ago for recreation by two friends Sandeep Chattoo, a Kashmiri pandit and a local hotelier, and Shamim Meraj, a Kashmiri Muslim. The club made headlines earlier this year when they beat Hindustan FC in the I-League second division to enter the top division. That they would be rubbing shoulders with champion clubs from across the country so soon, is something even they might not have imagined. Yet, here they are, not only as the most talked about and keenly awaited football club but also sponsored by none other than Adidas.
Why Real Kashmir? “RKFC is a very inspiring story. In these two years they are in the main division, which is an amazing accomplishment. They did this while facing many challenges. We see the tie-up as more than just kit sponsors. We believe that through sports we can change lives. And with that belief in mind, we are looking at the RKFC,” said Sean Van Wyk, senior marketing director, Adidas India.
And why an I-League club (a new entrant at that) over those in the more fancied ISL? “Both are major leagues in India but at the end of the day it is about the club, and what they stand for. They [RKFC] have done this on their own without any sponsorships till now,” Van Wyk said.
The RKFC also boasts of a new team combination, which includes six foreign players, including a new captain in Loveday Enyinnaya—a Nigerian professional who has played for Indian clubs like Malabar United F.C., Royal Wahingdoh F.C., Sporting clube de Goa and Minerva Punjab F.C..
“It is a step into darkness,” is how David Robertson, manager of the club ever since its inception, describes their entry into the I-League. The Scot has kept his eyes and ears open to the football action in India and the talent available in various clubs. He has tried to bring in the players who have the experience of playing against more established clubs. “We will only know how prepared we are when we play our first match. But it is a huge jump from the second division. Having said that, I think we are prepared for the challenge. We have had a good training camp and friendlies both in the valley and in Mumbai.”
Robertson's son is one of the six foreign players who have joined the RKFC this season. “Shamim [Meraj] encouraged me to take him and the fact that he is a good professional player made the decision easier. He can play in any position on the pitch. You never know with foreign players how they will turn out but I know exactly what we get with him.”
The high altitude and astro-turf pitch are also going to be challenging for the touring teams. RKFC players, meanwhile, are not overawed by the idea of playing a Mohun Bagan or Aizawl FC. “It is indeed challenging. We have an invitational tournament going on right now in Srinagar and have entered the finals of the competition. So have Minerva. It will be interesting as we take them on in our opening match, too. We have seen most teams play but most teams have not seen us play,” said the team's experienced midfielder Shahnawaz Bashir, who has also played for Lonestar Kashmir F.C. and Mumbai FC in the past.
For 22-year-old Danish Farooq whose heroics in the finals catapulted his team into the top division of the I-League, the prospect of playing with the big boys of Indian football is exciting. “We hope other clubs and coaches will see our talent and think we are good enough to be part of the national team or bigger clubs one day,” he said.
It is not just nervous moments for RKFC players but also for the state as it will be hosting six I-League matches at home for the first time. There were concerns regarding the home ground. Despite all efforts, things were sluggish under the earlier Mehbooba Mufti government. But once the president's rule was imposed, the governor ensured all the facilities were made available. While owners Meraj and Chattoo would love to see the team playing at the landmark but dilapidated Bakshi Stadium, they are currently looking to ensure all the home games are conducted smoothly on the astro-turf pitch at the TRC ground. When the winter is at its peak, the home matches are expected to be moved to Jammu due to snowfall.
Robertson played down security fears. “My only concern was if we can't play there [in Kashmir], it will be disappointing for the people of Kashmir to not see us play at home.”