A few days ago, seven Srinagar-based players of the Real Kashmir Football Club gathered in a hotel to ponder their road ahead. There was an atmosphere of tension in the city following speculation that the Indian government was about to scrap the special status of Jammu & Kashmir. Indian troops having flooded into the city and the authorities having imposed indefinite curfew-like restrictions and cut off internet and telephone services in the Valley and surrounding areas.
The players were scheduled to fly out of the city to Kalyani in West Bengal where they would join teammates from elsewhere in India and abroad to compete in the Durand Cup. The tournament was an important part of the preseason for the club that finished second in their debut I-League season earlier this year. Yet keeping the uncertainty in mind, team owner Sandeep Chattoo had asked them if they did want to travel away from their families. "I said I totally understand if you guys don't want to travel away from your family right now," Chattoo says. "But every one of them said, 'No, we want to play.'"
There was no hesitation in their response, Chattoo recalls. Twenty-three-year-old Danish, the team's star midfielder hailing from downtown Srinagar, spoke for his fellow teammates when he replied, "Sir, this is a decision taken by the government. It's not in our hands to make any difference to that decision. What we can do is play and leave the rest to God."
On Wednesday, Danish would score a 90th minute goal as Real Kashmir beat I-League champions Chennai City FC. It might be his first goal for the club this season but there was no way he could share the news with anyone back home. It has been over three days since he has had any contact with his family, who live in the Eidgah area of Srinagar. "When they landed in Kolkata, they couldn't even call their family and tell them that they had landed safely," says Chattoo.
Just getting to the airport had been a challenge in itself. Chattoo realised the situation was getting tense, which is why he had asked the Srinagar-based players of the club and travelling officials to stay at the hotel near the army cantonment a couple of days before they were to head out. "It was lucky that we did that," says Chattoo. "If they had not been in one place, it would have been impossible to coordinate with them in the city because there was no way to communicate with anyone."
Their status as I-League players didn't win them any concessions. On the morning of their 4pm flight, the players left at 10.30am and then ran into a scrum at the airport packed with thousands of people trying to get out of the city. One player described the scene as resembling a packed "Mumbai local [train]." The team and the support staff had to fight their way into the terminal through the crowd, unsure whether they would be allowed to carry their kit with them. "We eventually managed to take it but we had almost decided that we would simply get to Kalyani and buy what we could over there," says Showkat Yatoo, the team's general manager.
With 17 of the 23-member Real Kashmir squad based outside J&K state (now a Union Territory), it might have been possible for the team to compete in the Durand Cup even had the Srinagar-based players not been able to make it, but that was an unthinkable prospect. It wasn't the first time that the players had to deal with political and security obstacles beyond the pitch. Earlier this year, following a terrorist attack that caused an armed skirmish between India and Pakistan, former I-League champions Minerva FC refused to travel to Srinagar over what they termed unsafe playing conditions. "For these boys are from Kashmir, it's almost a routine for them to deal with these situations," says Chattoo. "Even then our club's culture has been the same. We want to play. We want to focus on our sport as much as possible."
While the players understand that just playing sport symbolises at least a hope of normalcy, it is impossible for them to not think of - and in the absence of communication wonder -- what their families and friends are going through.
On arriving in Kalyani and meeting their teammates already there, the Srinagar-based players had little time to recover from their mental and physical strain. Having reached a day before their opening match, they had a single hourlong practice session. While the players had been training individually under plans drawn out by coach David Robertson, this was the first time since the end of the previous season that they were training as a group. Despite these challenges -- and that of the torrential downpour the match was played in -- the team managed to pick up a win.
While Real Kashmir have another week to go before their next game, Chattoo has his hands busy reshuffling his plans for the teams' preparation for the I-League season. "Our original plan was to do our preseason training in Srinagar -- like we did last season -- but unless we get some clarity on the future situation there, that will be difficult," he says. "We have to see whether we can do our preseason training in some other city like Mumbai."
Chattoo travelled back to Srinagar on Wednesday. His task in the city is straightforward. "I'm going to be carrying back messages for their families," says Chattoo. "They asked me, 'Just let our families know that we are safe.'"