Their heart in football, mind in Kashmir

Kashmiri media reported that the team was playing in Delhi because of political backing.

Updated - September 22, 2016 05:00 pm IST

Published - September 04, 2016 03:02 am IST - NEW DELHI

Wasim Feroz has been around in Indian football for a while now. His stints at clubs like East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting have placed him in the league of a handful of professional players from Jammu & Kashmir. At the Ambedkar Stadium here, however, it is not possible to talk to Feroz. Or to anyone else from his team, for that matter.

Eye-catching The experienced defender is leading the charge for Real Kashmir FC in the ongoing Durand Cup and there is an unwritten rule refraining anyone to talk. Inconspicuous anywhere in the world, running around the football field in their red jerseys and white shorts, this bunch of boys from the Valley have evoked interest among the handful of people who turn out to watch the tournament here.

As Kashmir gradually limps back to normalcy after more than a month of curfew, which saw unprecedented protests and breakdown of peace, the football team here — made up exclusively of players drawn from the Valley and Jammu — is trying to focus on the job at hand.

Comfort in shadows The 128th edition of the oldest tournament in the country is the debut stage for this team that was formed less than six months ago to raise the profile of the game in Kashmir, and provide an avenue to the talented to display their wares outside. Not all players are Muslims; three in the line-up are Hindus as well.

The fear is understandable. The team is in Delhi, participating in a tournament organised by the armed forces. On Friday, it played against the Army Red side. This was its first full game of the competition. Back home, tension continues to simmer against the forces. The players are worried and unable to contact their families.

Local Kashmiri media had reported that the team was participating because of political backing even though more prominent clubs from the State had refused an invitation. It was perhaps symbolic that only two of the four floodlights installed at the Ambedkar Stadium were operational while warming up, the players visibly more comfortable in the shadows.

The staff insisted that all sportsmen, including footballers, had the highest respect of the local people back home and were never disturbed during trainings. But it was also honest enough to accept that the situation back home right now was not exactly conducive to participation in a tournament in the Capital.

As The Hindu approached the team during warm-up for some photographs, the staff warily requested to know the identity and purpose. They were courteous, but scared and unwilling to interact. Maybe at the end of the tournament, they said. Or maybe not. Friday’s match ended in a 1-1 draw, a fast-paced exhilarating game that saw the Kashmiris put up an impressive show.

Football may just be the bridge of trust in an atmosphere devoid of it.

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