We Cheer for Iceland, But Why Are We Clueless About the Rise of Real Kashmir FC?

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We Cheer for Iceland, But Why Are We Clueless About the Rise of Real Kashmir FC?

Illustration: Ahmed Sikander

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ndranik Eskandarian was on a tour with Pelé and Franz Beckenbauer when Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the Shah of Iran in 1979, and the downfall of the latter’s regime foreshadowed the fate of football in the country. Three years earlier, Iran’s national team and Eskandarian had made their debut in the FIFA World Cup, and had charted Scottish football’s lowest ebb through the infamous 1-1 draw that knocked the Scots out of the tournament. Eskandarian, like most others in the team, was a part-time player. But that did not stop him and his team from leaving their mark on the sport, and a country which would not appear in the World Cup again for two decades.

Such stories are symbolic of why football is truly universal, and has at its core the most organic and earthly of stories. This year, the tiny country of Iceland, with a population one-sixth of South Delhi’s, will grab headlines in their debut at the World Cup. But as romantic as their story is, it still feels evasive, or at least myopic, to compare Iceland with India, even as inspiration for the average football enthusiast. Because to put Iceland on such a pedestal is to assume that such stories of bravura, of belief and courage simply do not occur within the country’s borders. Nothing could be further from the truth – a sentiment embodied by nobody better than Real Kashmir FC, which became the first club from Kashmir to win the I-League second division in May. Therefore, next year they will become the first club from the Valley to play in the I-League’s first division.

There is nothing abhorrent in finding inspiration in Iceland’s rise, Costa Rica’s overachievement from the last tournament, or that unforgettable Senegalese onslaught in 2002. But what this mapping of local aspiration with foreign achievement does is bypass reality, and most criminally undermines the heroism of those who, despite the modesty of the game in our country, not only dream, but also do.

Moments like Aizawl FC’s I-League win from a couple of years ago, and Neroca FC becoming the first team from Manipur to enter the I-League and come within an inch of actually winning it, have all been under-cherished. The surfeit supply of western football has turned people into consumers, not supporters, amounting to occasions where the Indian captain Sunil Chhetri has to publicly plead for local support. We demand a higher product, but we don’t want to help build it.

It is crucial to repeatedly acknowledge the villainy of circumstance and enforced struggles on the beautiful game in this country. But it is just as important to celebrate the heroism of those who overcome the odds and navigate their way past it.

Hence for a place readily expunged with political rhetoric, it is not hard to see why an against-all-odds story like that of Real Kashmir FC doesn’t go viral like Iceland’s maiden World Cup bow. The only emerging tangents from a success story in Kashmir are not the technicality of the footballing skill, but the political brouhaha around it and the possibility of masala that the Indian media so loves. For those who do not know, or simply don’t bother to look below the Manchester Uniteds and Liverpools of the world, Real Kashmir FC isn’t even the only club from Kashmir playing in the Indian divisions at the moment. While Real Kashmir FC was founded only as late as 2016, Lone Star Kashmir FC came up in 2013. The latter has on two occasions come achingly close to that coveted prize, promotion to the first division. There is then a successful on-field narrative as well, and not just the gasp-drawing ideas of agendas.

Football in the Valley has a rich history. From the Maharaja Gold Cup organised during the Maharaja of Kashmir’s rule, to Abdul Majeed Kakroo becoming the captain of the Indian team in the far-off days of 1987, there have always been heroes to look up to and moments to cherish. Though the insurgency of the late ’80s put some distance between the Kashmiri foot and the ball, it could not usurp the longing between the two. Even films set in the Valley, as parsimoniously light as Harud (2010) offered snapshots of that yearning. Coupled with the ban on cinemas that restrict the Kashmiri’s options for entertainment, football has finally returned to the Valley. And though it is a heart-warming story of resilience and rebirth, it has not been without its generic challenges.

After the floods of 2014, Shamim Meraj pooled money along with a few friends from Delhi and bought a thousand footballs to give to the children in the Valley, just so they could get their minds off the devastation caused. That stepping stone of intent, after Meraj found supporters among relatives and friends, became a football club a year later in the form of Real Kashmir FC. At the time, Meraj’s team entered the preliminaries of the second division, he did not have a single sponsor. The team couldn’t make it past the preliminary stage; a year later though, they won the division.

Though there is a fairy-tale feeling to the Real Kashmir FC story, and the emergence of the two clubs (there is now a Kashmir derby that is played on the national stage) despite curfews, shutdowns, and violence, the Valley is still besotted by issues that are perhaps universal to India. Real Kashmir FC share a stadium with 10 other teams, practicing through time-slots. There is no facility that matches the standards required to host an I-League game. There is still no stadium with floodlights in the whole state, or one with dressing rooms, or even toilets. For a state which has close to 500 football clubs registered with the football association, the problems are astounding. But then again, so is Real Kashmir FC’s accomplishment.

While we continue to think we deserve Messis and Neymars of our own, we refuse to acknowledge the issues that regularly foreshorten the probability of such stories ever happening. It is crucial to repeatedly acknowledge the villainy of circumstance and enforced struggles on the beautiful game in this country. But it is just as important to celebrate the heroism of those who overcome the odds and navigate their way past it.

That’s why while I might revel in Spain’s fluidity, Germany’s efficiency, or Brazil’s sublime magic this World Cup, the team I’m rooting for is Real Kashmir FC.

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