Photo: Shail Desai
Photo: Shail Desai

Football finds its post again in Kashmir

After years of being kicked around, Kashmiri football is finally finding its feet

The sixth edition of the Nehru Cup in 1987 was a special one for Indian football for more than one reason. Until then, the team was known as the whipping boys of the tournament. And when they were drawn in a group featuring seasoned opposition in Bulgaria, Denmark and China, the odds were clearly stacked against them.

Calicut (now Kozhikode), however, witnessed their best performance until then. It featured two draws (against China and Denmark) and a resolute display in their 0-2 loss against Bulgaria. It was the closest India had come to qualifying for the knockouts.

This was a hearty performance from a team led by a man who had infected others with his fervour and grit.

While players from Goa and Bengal dominated that Indian squad, donning the captain’s armband was Abdul Majeed Kakroo—the first Indian skipper from the Kashmir Valley.

The game had a dedicated following in that part of the country and had thrown up players of repute every now and then. After all those years, here was a man from the Valley who had reached the pinnacle of Indian football against all odds.

However, at a time when Kashmiri football seemed poised for greatness, there came shock that undid it all. From battling it out on the field, it became a fight for survival for players such as Kakroo.

“Normalcy" is a word still alien to Kashmir. But after all those years of turmoil, Kashmiris today are not only dreaming of those palmy days once again, but also inching closer to it through a collective effort.

***

Back in the day when the maharajas ruled Kashmir, football was a source of entertainment for the people after toiling all day at work. The accessibility of the game made it popular among the masses—all that was needed was a ball that they could chase in the many fields that dot the countryside.

“Since the people enjoyed it, the king enjoyed it. He hosted tournaments like the Maharaja Gold Cup, in addition to other competitions on special occasions such as his birthday. From those times, football picked up in Kashmir. Subsequently, we formed the Jammu and Kashmir Football Association (JKFA) in 1966 to take the game forward," says the association’s former president N.A. Khan.

It was all building up to what is considered the golden period of football in the Valley. Between 1976 and 1988, Kashmir hosted Junior and Senior Nationals, the All India University Championship, and tournaments for the civil services and the police, in addition to the Federation Cup.

“We produced 19 international players—from the school level to the senior team. Then we had players representing top clubs such as Mohun Bagan, East Bengal, the Railways teams and clubs from Bombay," Khan says.

Before Kakroo, players such as Mohammed Yousuf Dar and Farooq Ahmad Bhat had drawn a lot of attention from the football fraternity. Teams such as the State Road Transport Corporation (SRTC, later just RTC) and Jammu and Kashmir Bank (J&K Bank) were considered the nursery of Kashmiri football, and enjoyed a lot of success in those days, despite the lack of anything in the way of quality infrastructure.

Kakroo, for instance, remembers never owning a football during those early days playing in the bylanes of Srinagar’s Koker Bazaar. A few locals recall his mother selling vegetables in the market to make ends meet.

Abdul Majeed Kakroo.
Abdul Majeed Kakroo.

Her son, in the meantime, was busy collecting paper and stuffing them in a polythene bag to conjure up his first football. The facilities were scant—the row of plants in the local garden doubled up as posts to practice dribbling; a few salvaged leather balls were dipped in water to make them heavier, in order to practice shooting at targets made of used tyres.

To recuperate, a pit was dug and filled with water to replicate an ice bath of sorts; players would exercise in the same water pit to build up muscle. Nutrition came in the form of anything that was found on the long walk home—from raw milk and eggs to “mooli and shalgam (radish and turnip)". Starting out with the local Court Road mohalla team, Kakroo went on to play for RTC, and later Mohun Bagan and East Bengal.

“In 1979-80, we went to play the Durand Cup with RTC (SRTC) where I scored 18 goals on debut. The newspapers called me Kashmir ka sher (the lion of Kashmir). I was asked to join the India team camp in Bangalore, with an eye on the 1982 Asian Games," Kakroo says.

Back home in Srinagar, the Bakshi stadium became the hub of all activity. Tariqa Darzi, a football aficionado who continues to support the sport today, fondly remembers a Santosh Trophy game in 1985 between Hyderabad and Goa.

“Our culture was similar to that of the Hyderabadis, so there was tremendous support for them. When Hyderabad won that tie, they were gifted garlands of money, which is a tradition in Kashmir to welcome the bride and bridegroom during weddings. It was a token of our love and respect for the team which had outstanding players such as Khizar Ali and Gaffar," says Darzi.

The homegrown heroes then were showered with affection. Kakroo remembers being carried all the way to his home by a delirious mob of 20,000, all chanting his name. From those days of battling contemporaries on the local ground, Kakroo moved on to becoming a regular feature on the India side.

Then one fine day, everything changed.

This was at the end of the 1980s, when anti-India sentiments were on the rise and militancy was taking root in Kashmir. At the peak of his career, when he was earning adulations in the maidans of Kolkata, he received a simple message to come back home.

“They said if I represented India, I would find life difficult in Kashmir. I received regular threats (from militant/separatist groups) and had little choice but to quit," he says.

Playing international football like Kakroo was now a distant dream for a number of other talented players. Just keeping the game alive in the Valley would become a challenge, leave alone donning the national jersey. The golden period of Kashmiri football was fading away to a bitter end.

***

The period of militancy in the 1990s wreaked havoc on life in Kashmir and continues to be an ailment that rears its head time and again. Back then, it was a battle for survival on a daily basis, as attacks and curfews hampered livelihoods.

There was no question of playing football, given the circumstances. The local league was discontinued and most government teams shut shop, giving players no avenues to continue their pursuit of the beautiful game.

“Footballers had to simply quit playing—so many careers stalled because of the unrest. I was once being interviewed by a news channel at Polo Ground in 1990. Everybody evacuated the ground, assuming that bullets would soon be flying since I was talking to Indian media. One courageous man even walked up to wish me well, saying that this was perhaps the last time he was seeing me," Kakroo recalls.

Others have a similar story. In 1991, Zahoor Haroon returned from a stint with the junior India team that had turned out at the Asian Schools Football Games in China. A year later, at 19, he had received offers from Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting.

“I felt insecure about playing outside of Kashmir. Anyone I asked for an opinion would advise me against it. Clubs in Kashmir had even started paying their players, but it all stopped during this time. I had no choice but to drop the idea of playing professionally," says Haroon, who went on to become a veterinarian.

Khan was then the head of the RTC. side, which was the top team in Kashmir.

“Many footballers left us to join other ranks; a few even took to militancy. RTC was considered a government team and playing for them was against the Kashmiri sentiment. To bypass this problem, we gave our teams local names based on areas in Srinagar—Rambagh, Barzulla, Eidgah. The game was kept alive locally through these mohallas," he says.

The next generation too had shown potential at the national level. Six schoolchildren had been handed football scholarships by the Sports Authority of India to help develop their game. Majid Yousuf Dar, whose father Mohammed Yousuf Dar had played for India in 1977, was a part of that batch that was making rapid progress.

“The coach just stopped coming one day; then, the funds stopped for our food and boarding. We were lucky to have the support of the principal, Parwez Samuel Koul, at the Tyndale Biscoe School, who encouraged us to continue playing. We usually played among ourselves, but when the situation improved, he helped us form a team called YMCA. Though the team survived for just a year, we won every local tournament there was as we gelled well together. We were 14- and 15-year-olds, playing against men. The crowd loved us," Dar recalls.

Majid Dar playing for the YMCA team dribbles the ball. Photo courtesy Majid Dar
Majid Dar playing for the YMCA team dribbles the ball. Photo courtesy Majid Dar

This bunch featured the likes of Ishfaq Ahmed and Mehrajuddin Wadoo, who went on to play for the national side and top clubs around India. Though they had their own progress hampered at times, they were well aware of the power of football. In the years to come, they would go on to form the core of the group that would change things for football in Kashmir.

***

The situation in Kashmir improved towards the end of the ’90s. Besides Ishfaq and Wadoo, a player or two would make it out of the state after 2000, usually for a season or so. Players were still looking at football as a means to earn two square meals, as a result of which many chased “department teams"—as the name suggests, these were sides fielded by various departments of the state government—in search of job security. The professional mindset was missing; then again, opportunities were few.

In 2012, J&K Bank started an academy that today has around 22 boys in Jammu and 30 in Srinagar, aged 12-17. By the time they were 19, they were released. Most turned out for the J&K Bank senior team, which has built a formidable side ever since and are the current league champions in Srinagar.

“What happened was that the average age of the players on the senior side dropped from 34 to 23 years. The quality improved since they trained around the year. This set up has made a massive contribution to football development, especially when the situation was bad in Kashmir," Dar says.

The JKFA managed to run the league, but disturbances time and again—in addition to the 2014 flood that wreaked havoc in Srinagar—meant frequent disruptions. There was little need for government departments to run a football team during such times, and footballers were usually called on during the odd private tournament.

“We had no way of exposing our top players to the Indian arena. Our best team at that time was J&K Bank. But this was a team run by a bank and its orders (for instance, the team was disbanded during demonetization last year).

“So we could not send this team to all-India competitions. SRTC disbanded, a good team called Food and Supplies shut shop. Those that survived too could afford to operate only to a certain limit," Khan says.

After the I-League and I-League 2 were launched, Khan approached people to invest in a private team that aspired to play on these platforms. Iftikhar Lone, who had just returned to Srinagar after decades in the Middle East, shared this vision and Lonestar Kashmir came about in October-November 2013.

Three years later, it was followed by Real Kashmir, which is funded by Shameem Meraj, owner of the Kashmir Monitor newspaper. The team visited Scotland in July for pre-season training.

These private clubs had licensed coaches in Hilal Rasool Parray (Lonestar Kashmir) and David Robertson (Real Kashmir), who were familiar with the world of professional football.

As the economy improved in Kashmir, department teams such as SRTC and Power Development Corporation (PDC) too restarted and featured in the local league.

“Since so many clubs have come up, we have healthy competition in the state as well," Lone says.

The focus was to provide opportunities to homegrown players and hire local management. The two private clubs went on to play in the second division (I-League 2), based on a core comprising Kashmiri players—both from within the state and from elsewhere.

“Football is a great distraction for youngsters in the Valley. You bring them back through football. It is difficult to run the whole show on your own. But we don’t want sponsorship from anybody—it has to be someone who understands our philosophy," Lone adds.

In their third year in 2016, Lonestar played the qualifiers of I-League 2 with local players, and only added a few from outside that included foreigners in the final round. The scouting for Kashmiri talent continues—a few weeks ago, Shoaib Hilal Mir, a 14-year-old from Bandipora who lives in the UK, joined Lonestar, while another teenager, Dawar Iqbal Bhat from Jammu was also added to the roster.

Football is also healing old wounds that have their roots in those disruptive days. For a few like Dashyanng Kachru, it was an emotional moment when he decided to play in Kashmir a season ago. When the Kashmiri Pandits fled the Valley during the ’90s, a few of his relatives were among them.

A Mumbai boy at heart, his mother was a nervous wreck when the opportunity to play for Lonestar came up.

“I’ve heard stories of my family (that) left in the middle of the night with no belongings, just happy to escape in a truck full of people. My mom was a bit scared (when Lonestar approached); my grandparents were totally against it. They said go to any part of India but don’t go to Kashmir," Kachru says.

He was made to feel at home, though, and has since re-signed with the club this season, dominating the midfield during the recently played out league.

“Everyone relates to me here due to our history and I’ve received tremendous support. They consider me a long-lost brother. I met a Kashmiri Pandit family in Hyderabad once. They told me that they felt good that I had decided to go back to Kashmir; it gives them confidence to send their children as well," he says.

With a system—of sorts—up and running, there was a need to think long-term and focus on the grassroots. That catalyst came from an unlikely source.

Waheed Ur Rehman Para, youth president and spokesperson of the People’s Democratic Party, led the charge to make football a constant in Kashmir once again.

***

Until a few years ago, the J&K Sports Council primarily played the role of a facilitator between the government and the state associations for funding. Once Para took over as the secretary and CEO, they got directly involved with football through the State Football Academy, which they have complete control of.

With the patronage of chief minister Mehbooba Mufti Sayeed, who is also president of the council, the body was given a free hand to lay a new foundation for Kashmiri football at an annual budget of Rs2 crore. The batch from the 1990s— including Majid Yousuf Dar, Sajid Yousuf Dar (his elder brother and former coach of the women’s national team), Wadoo and Ishfaq—took charge of the grassroots.

Through the State Football Academy, launched in May this year, football has been taken to places in the state where it needed a fillip, while also introducing it to districts such as Kupwara, Samba and Kathua, where it had hardly been played.

With a number of these districts still considered “disturbed blocks" by the authorities, challenges were aplenty while setting up football centres. It was a struggle to find a coach who would take charge of Tral due to the situation there; in Pulwama, trials were conducted amid fears of stone pelting. The last area to be reached out in November was Ladakh, through a centre in Leh.

“We’ve started academies across 14 districts so far. By next year, we would have reached out to all. We then want to introduce age group leagues within the state, and groom the best players for the national level," says Majid Dar.

The Dar brothers are involved with the daily functioning of the academies, complemented by a team of diligent coaches, some of whom had the opportunity to earn their coaching badges at the National Institute of Sports, Patiala. Others like Wadoo and Ishfaq make themselves available whenever the opportunity arises—Wadoo is part of the Mumbai City squad, while Ishfaq is the assistant coach at Jamshedpur FC in the Indian Super League.

“The philosophy and curriculum is the same at all centres. We want our coaches to continue earning their licences and grow as individuals. We ensure that no child goes back disappointed. For those who don’t make it to the academies, we’ve started football schools twice a week," Dar says.

“You can say that the sports council has had a major role to play because the youth now have sports to look forward to," he adds.

A team in the Under-18 I-League next year will be the first opportunity for the boys at the national level, after a promising debut in the local league alongside established sides such as J&K Bank, Lonestar and Real Kashmir.

“They finished at the bottom, but collected seven points against good teams. To play like that is great news for us," says Ali Mohammed Wani, an assistant coach at SFA and in-charge of the Under-13s.

“To have the right people involved is critical. There are ups and downs in everything—at times, because of people; at other times, because of the situation. But for us, the joy comes from the fact that today, children are showing up for practice every day," he says.

Their efforts took another giant leap when the first team from the state featured in the recently concluded Indian Women’s League (IWL). After a nervous start, the team put on an inspired performance, even bagging their first win against Baroda Football Academy.

“A few years ago, there were just the two of us (the other being Nadiya Nighat) who used to play; this time, there were nine girls in camp from Kashmir. There were others as well, who were disappointed on missing out," says Afshan Ashiq, the goalkeeper of the team.

Head coach Satpal Singh believes their maiden stint in the IWL was the perfect launch for women’s football in Kashmir.

“Before this, the participation was not consistent. When there were enough players, we used to play in the nationals. In the future, we want to have a girls’ team from each district to increase the pool and also give them regular games," Singh says.

***

The artificial turf at the Tourist Reception Centre in Srinagar was the hub of all action last month when the premier division of the local league was played out. In the weeks that followed, teams from Jammu and Ladakh joined the top teams from Srinagar to play another league.

“The situation today is far from the days when games were interrupted by militants. A player who performs today will instantly be poached by another team—it’s healthy competition. Though most players are still playing for a job, this mentality will change soon," says Imran Ahmed Bhat, who plays for J&K Police.

Each morning, the turf is taken over by the team who’ve been assigned a training slot for the day. The rest play a short distance away at Polo Ground near Lal Chowk—the hub of disarray back in the day.

Once school is over, the boys crowd around their coaches at the same venue to learn the finer nuances of the game. Even in the winters when the landscape is painted white by snowfall, football goes on as usual, especially on the artificial turf that was laid out in 2014.

A few have the privilege of moving to Jammu to continue training. There’s never a time when these facilities lie vacant, especially since Kashmir is seeing better days of late.

Kakroo has taken charge of the PDC team—a fledgling side that has 24 boys on contract to play this season. He’s been at the forefront to find them permanent jobs in PDC instead of signing them on with yearly contracts.

“Employment is important, since it puts food on the table. That’s when a player can focus on playing. However, these are a bright bunch of boys who are simply happy to play for now. But they need to aim for something if they want to get somewhere. It is my job to get them to realize that," he says.

And perhaps to show that it isn’t an impossible dream for a Kashmiri to once again lead the Indian national team some day.

Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based writer.

Comments are welcome at feedback@livemint.com

Close