Football Fever and the Valley

Players from the Real Kashmir and Indian Arrows football clubs play during their I-League Football match at the TRC Turf Ground in Srinagar  | KO file photo by Abid Bhat

By Suhail Ahmad Khan

THIS month, July, offered a spectacle for football fans around the world, as the finals of two major international football tournaments were played. On 11 July, the final of Copa America—a South American based football tournament, was played between Argentina and Brazil in which Argentina defeated Brazil and won its first major international trophy since 1993. The trophy was also the first major international trophy of  Argentinian star footballer— Lionel Messi while representing his nation. On the other hand, Italy and England locked horns in the final of the Euro 2020, a European based football tournament. It was England’s first final since 1966, and amid the chants of “ It’s Coming Home,” the trophy was won by Italy after defeating England (3-2) in a penalty shootout. As these two tournaments came to an end, football enthusiasts in Kashmir took to social media to celebrate the victory of their favourite teams.

For decades now, football is one of the most popular sports in the valley, and the valley has produced star footballers like Majid Kakroo, Mehrajuddin Wadoo, and Ishfaq Ahmad. Moreover, the rise of Real Kashmir FC is not less than a miracle, even prompting BBC Scotland to make an award-winning documentary on the club’s feats. Nevertheless, the valley lacks proper football infrastructure.

Governments after governments and the administration has completely overlooked the poor football infrastructure in the valley. Despite the popularity of the sport here, the relevant authorities have failed to upgrade the available infrastructure. If the valley’s premier football stadium is not well maintained and falls short of logistics, it is hard to comment on other football grounds that the authorities claim to have constructed.

At present, two Srinagar based clubs—Real Kashmir FC and Lonestar Kashmir FC, represent Kashmir in the higher echelons of Indian football. Real Kashmir FC plays in the I-league while Lonestar Kashmir FC plays in the 2nd division of the I-league. Both the clubs practice and play their home matches at the TRC synthetic turf—the only standard football ground in the city. However, the standard of the TRC ground cannot be overstated. The stadium’s infrastructure is poor as it does not have well maintained changing rooms for players, washrooms and can accommodate no more than 15,000 people at a time. The seating arrangements at the ground have often irked the spectators. The seats carved out of metal turn cold during winters, thus, making it difficult for them to enjoy the football.

Even if the authorities undertake projects to upgrade the football infrastructure in the valley, they fail to complete them on time. The upgrading means that stadiums will be out of bounds for play, and local players cannot practice there. When this upgrading takes more time than the stated time frame, footballers in the valley suffer as they have fewer avenues to hone their skills.

Take the example of the Bakshi Stadium, Srinagar. The authorities declared that it will be renovated and made into a state-of-the-art stadium by the end of the year 2019. However, even in 2021, the stadium is yet to be fully renovated. The stadium is to serve as the home ground of Real Kashmir FC, but its incompleteness means that the club has to wait for a few more months or possibly years before using it. Moreover, when such kinds of (construction) deadlocks occur, it is hard for aspiring footballers to keep the passion of football alive.

In the recent past, several prominent footballers have raised the concern of insufficient football infrastructure in Kashmir. In an interview in 2020, Afshan Ashiq, the coach and captain of the J&K women’s football team said that the Union Territory needs better football infrastructure. In a similar vein, the Head Coach of the Lonestar Kashmir FC, Chandan Rathod,  also pointed out the poor infrastructure in the valley. Unless infrastructure in the valley is not developed, it is hard to cultivate talents at the grassroots level, as this requires engaging the youth and encouraging them to take the sport. Devoid of any facilities, there are fewer incentives even for the talented ones to play football. Moreover, maintaining the existing infrastructure and providing logistical support is also important for promoting football in Kashmir. But the most important thing is accessibility. For that, the authorities have to devise a plan to develop and subsequently maintain football fields for budding players across the valley.

In Kashmir, football, like other sports, is more than just a game. It offers a way to escape the dark realities of the ongoing conflict and a medium through which Kashmiri men and women alike can express themselves. Through football, Kashmiris want to change the perceptions that people have about them. As one aspiring Kashmiri female footballer reportedly said, “ We want to change the way people look at Kashmir and Kashmiri women.” The likes of her need proper infrastructure to realize these goals.

Views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer

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