Real Kashmir FC are the miracle story of Indian football. After winning the 2017-18 I-League 2nd Division after defeating Hindustan FC, the team are on the cusp of creating history of securing the I-League title for the first time. However, these are tough times for the club. The Pulwama terror attack on February 14, which resulted in the death of 40 CRPF jawans, has cast a pall of gloom among football fans in the valley. Minerva Punjab, the defending I-League champions, has refused to play in Srinagar while Real Kashmir’s game against East Bengal is on shaky grounds. However, the club is united, strong and are still extending an invitation to other clubs with open hands.
Speaking exclusively about the existing situation to News Nation, Real Kashmir FC co-owner Shamim Meraj said the nature of football, and sports in general, is of political neutrality and it has not affected the morale of the team or the fans. “Pulwama was tragic. Our heart goes out to the dead. It is not something new in Kashmir. We have seen that football is played in North Korea, Palestine and Syria also. It has not affected the morale of the Kashmir football fans. We were all looking forward to the game yesterday. 2000 people had turned up at the TRC Turf Club stadium but what happened was unfortunate,” Meraj said.
On match day, the Real Kashmir FC Twitter handle summed up the disappointment of the fans who had come to the stadium to witness the clash but had to go home empty-handed. Minerva Punjab refused to turn up and the match was forfeited. However, the event has taken an ugly turn with the defending champions filing a writ petition in the Delhi High Court after refusing the offer of a forfeiture by asserting that the home club and the All India Football Federation (AIFF) failed in providing written security assurances.
Meraj, though, lashed out at Minerva Punjab for forfeiting the game. “Minerva Punjab had to play the AFC. We were supposed to play them on the 17th of this month. As a matter of basic courtesy towards another club, we said that we understood about their travel schedule and we decided to play on the 18th instead. Just out of courtesy. I doubt they had booked their tickets to travel. They were just looking for an excuse not to play. At home, we play really well and the crowd supports us. Minerva's stance is full of double standards. They first said they were willing to play outside at a neutral venue outside Srinagar. They then said we will play at a later date. At least stick to one stand,” Meraj said.
In this entire episode, the AIFF has referred the Minerva issue to its League Committee and maintained silence on East Bengal's concerns. The AIFF has also not declared the match a forfeiture till now and according to the FIFA guidelines, in the event of a forfeiture, full points are awarded to the team turning up for the game. I-League CEO Sunando Dhar had said local security authorities in Srinagar gave the go-ahead to hold the match at the TRC Ground and added that the AIFF was assured of all the necessary security arrangements. When asked about the support the side got from AIFF or the I-League, Meraj urged the authorities to follow the rule-book.
“There is no question of supporting us. We never expected extra support. We just want them to follow the rulebook. If the rules say that the team has forfeited, we should get three points. The AIFF commissioners has given the report that everything is fine. They were here three days before to meet the security officers. They met the administration. How can you give a written assurance? This is unheard of,” Meraj said.
Tough off the field, unity in diversity on it
The Minerva Punjab fiasco is another addition to Real Kashmir FC’s off the field troubles. Earlier, in 2018, the players were abused by the ground staff as they prepared for their clash against Gokulam Kerala F.C. in Calicut. In addition, they had to face plenty of logistical issues and were reportedly not given adequate practice facilities.
Despite all the problems, Real Kashmir F.C have had a miraculous run on the field, having a good chance of winning the title. Meraj said the success was due to the players and in the mantra ‘Unity in Diversity.’ “The Real Kashmir FC story is incomplete without the players. It is a rainbow team. Muslims, Hindus, Christians and Buddhists all combine to play football for a team in Kashmir. Players like Surchandra Singh and Abhas Thapa all treat Kashmir as their second home. People to people contact is not that bad. It is a welcoming place. We treat each other as family and we are united. Unity for Real Kashmir is in the diversity and we are proud of it,” Meraj said.
Following the Pulwama attack, the message that is being spread by the club and the fans is ‘Lets play to heal.’ The club and the fans have a simple message for East Bengal which was reiterated by Meraj. “Come for the game. We will open our hearts and homes for you,” Meraj said.
Indeed, after Pulwama, the message of Lets Play to Heal is apt for Real Kashmir and sporting fans.