Real Kashmir FC Might Create I-League History. But What Are the Club’s Chances of Survival?

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Real Kashmir FC Might Create I-League History. But What Are the Club’s Chances of Survival?

Illustration: Arati Gujar

On Thursday afternoon, the Tourist Reception Centre (TRC) ground in Srinagar was sun-washed. Perfect setting for football, you would think, but the makeshift venue was covered with snow as well. Sunday’s marquee contest between Real Kashmir FC with East Bengal could not go ahead, a novelty even for the I-League which is not a stranger when it comes to grappling with the elements.

But in recent years, the league has become accustomed to learning new truths. In November, when Mohun Bagan walked away with a narrow win from Srinagar, few would have given RKFC a chance to compete for the title. But the club went on to catch fire even as the temperatures dipped sharply. Since that defeat, RKFC are unbeaten in 12 matches. Once again, in a league defined by its surprises, we have another unlikely contender.

Real Kashmir is following in the footsteps of the unlikely champions in the preceding campaigns, Aizawl and Minerva Punjab. I-League is the competition where experts go to eat humble pie. The applecart has been upset so long that it may never regain its structure. For any league, such unpredictable drama would be its calling card. Both Minerva and Aizawl won a title race that went down to the wire even as stronger forces in East Bengal and Mohun Bagan exposed their feet of clay which grow moldier by the year.

But with every campaign of the I-League, the death knell raises its pitch too. In the middle of the ongoing season, the broadcaster Star Sports decided to reduce its broadcast of the competition. Only 26 of the remaining 56 matches were to be telecast live. Defending champion Minerva was not to be featured more than once, while you could watch Aizawl play just thrice.

I-League is the competition where experts go to eat humble pie.

The interested parties, and those who recognise the inestimable value of the I-League, immediately registered their protest. But to no avail. The All India Football Federation (AIFF) has long handed the keys to Indian football to Reliance. The most conspicuous offspring of this self-serving relationship is the Indian Super League (ISL) – a competition defined by falling interest and stadium attendances, opaque ownership structures, and a self-appointed role as the custodian of football in India. Case in point was the advertisement which preceded the current edition of the ISL. A statist instruction driven by an impolite jingle – “Fan Banna Padega (You must support Indian football)”.

It was worth asking whether watching the football competition was compulsory military service for the Indian millennial now. If so, then where do clubs like Aizawl and Real Kashmir fit in? According to the same hoodwinkers, the rise of such teams from the margins of the mainstream herald a new awakening in Indian football. But then why does the ISL, with its repeated commitment to Indian football, not open its affluent doors to them by allowing promotion? Instead, RKFC and others are condemned to wallow in the growing irrelevance of the I-League. Their only route to grabbing our attention is to repeat audacious feats like the ones witnessed in recent years.

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Hindustan Times / Contributor / Getty Images

But hang on. They could go another way. If you cannot beat them, you could join them. Indian football behemoths, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, have acknowledged the cue and it is likely that they will take the plunge into the ISL next season. There is much to gain, after all. The impending arrival of the Kolkata giants will not just add metaphorical heft to the ISL, it will also spare the clubs the running embarrassment they face at the hands of their I-League competitors. Remember, they cannot beat you if you run away!

Sadly for the AIFF, it is still saddled with the sorry job of promoting the I-League when its damp glory manages to slip through the cracks. Cue patting self on the back when the Asian Football Confederation awarded the runner-up spot to the competition as part of its “Best Developing Football League” prize. Or wax eloquent when Switzerland’s renowned team FC Basel buy a stake in Chennai City FC, or German side Borussia Monchengladbach sign a Memorandum of Understanding with Minerva.

But these lone glimmers are likely to dim too. The obstacles in front of Real Kashmir are suitable examples. The club’s excellence is not merely punching above its weight in the very first I-League campaign. It is to do so when an aggressive Indian state and its military are obstinate in their desire to make life farcical for Kashmiris. It is frankly stunning that the state of Jammu and Kashmir is still blessed with two teams competing in India’s formalised football league structure – the other being Lonestar Kashmir, currently in I-League second division.

Their rise from obscurity is also a reminder of the slippery precipice that lies not too far.

The rise in standards has prompted a more diverse roster. Earlier, Real Kashmir’s local recruits came “from a demographic that is a mix of working-class and white-collar. These are sons of tradesmen, government employees, former footballers,” as noted by Sharda Ugra in her richly detailed piece on the club last year. To sustain their status, this shift in RKFC’s policy will have to continue. And it cannot be done until better and broader sources of income are discovered in a football ecosystem characterised by astronomical losses.

These pitfalls are obvious to the self-aware RKFC. The difficulties of organising football in a state where institutional support is often lacking are not lost on co-owners Shamim Meraj and Sandeep Chatoo. Their rise from obscurity is also a reminder of the slippery precipice that lies not too far. Over the last decade, Indian football has lost many established clubs and upstarts. Despite this, the support required to dance with alacrity on the higher landscape has not been forthcoming. Instead, the ground is slipping beneath I-League residents.

This shaky reality does make the rise of Real Kashmir even sweeter. It makes one yearn for more miracle stories like Aizawl, or a Leicester City-like turnaround which was achieved by Minerva. This season, Real Kashmir has shocked us too by conceding only eight goals in 16 matches. Under Scottish coach David Robertson, the team is a fortress that has frustrated the best of sides. But even if Real Kashmir ends up lifting the league title, the question will not be far away – How long will the citadel last?

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