A local football team from a tiny valley community in India’s most troubled region is inspiring the country after its players made it to the professional league, with a helping hand from their Scottish coach.
Four years ago, a newspaper owner in Srinagar, the summer capital of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, started a football club to help a community devastated by flooding.
Shamim Meraj, a Muslim and editor of the Kashmir Monitor, had no cash, no staff and no pitch when he started his dream of a club that would rally the valley’s spirit; but in four years he has seen his beloved Real go from passion project to India’s professional I-League.
This week, the team made up of students and semi-professionals employed by a bank became the first from the state to qualify for India’s top division league. The I-League is distinct from the Indian Soccer League, but boasts some of the country’s oldest clubs – some dating back nearly a century.
In a sign of the inspiration to the conflicted state, Real Kashmir Football Club’s other owner is a hotel owner and Hindu priest, Sandeep Chattoo, a close pal of Meraj.
Congratulations Real Kashmir FC for becoming the first club from Kashmir to qualify for the I-League. I am sure the achievement will inspire the youth to take up the game and take our Country to higher echelons of Indian Football. @IndianFootball @ILeagueOfficial @realkashmirfc pic.twitter.com/a4VCNJTNXs
Click Here: gws giants guernsey 2019— Praful Patel (@praful_patel) May 30, 2018
“We’ve got six or seven different faiths, four or five nationalities and kids from across India here – and you see them working together everyday and having each other’s back, and it’s a nice picture”, David Robertson, the team’s coach, tells The Telegraph.
Robertson, a Scottish football legend having played for and won several league titles with Rangers in the 90s, slotted in when the owners were looking for an experienced and open-minded coach who might take on the challenge.
"The first time I set foot in India was Kashmir”, says Robertson. “And when you see India on TV you don’t realise there’s parts of it like that. "It reminds me a lot of Scotland – there’s mountains, it rains, there’s four proper seasons.
"And the people here are very into their beliefs, but very friendly. I’ve had nothing but a warm welcome since I’ve been here. They’re fantastic people.”
Real Kashmir has a young and inexperienced squad. The club itself was properly formed 18 months ago, and the ex-Rangers man was given the task to develop it from scratch, something he did with Phoenix Wolves in the USA.
He says: "We have a very young side, many of the boys are away from their families for four months at a time so they depend on each other.
"The area’s not that well known for its football, even though everyone plays it on the streets – and this hopefully can put us on the map. It’s not just about Real Kashmir but the whole state and its football potential."
Of the region’s well documented secular problems, Robertson says he has always received a warm welcome, and hopes the club can inspire some unity.
"You get an idea of the different personalities of the parts of India from our team, and that’s great. The different faiths meant we all go off and pray, sometimes together, but always we are a team. But the respect for each other’s beliefs and personalities is huge, and meaningful."