Of Kashmir’s 1st big-ticket soccer game in 20 years....

There were security checks at every 50 metres on the approach to Srinagar’s Tourist Recreation Council ground, the plainclothes policemen themselves slightly amused at this mid-week, early-winter intrusion into their otherwise high-tension routines. “Hurry up,” one told his colleague as he frisked a ticket-holding youth who couldn’t wait to get in, “I’ve heard around 25,000 people are expected today.”

One of the policemen, on feeling a travel sachet of medicines in the bag, asked if there was a pill for his headache. Another said had we informed them that we were not locals, they would have let us in without much ado. “We know whom to check and for what exactly,” he quipped, “Saves time.” It was a headache as usual for the local authorities, but for a change the Srinagar locals didn’t mind at all.

In any case, all of this has never mattered to Mohammad Shahban—70 years old, with a grey flowing beard, an embroidered cap adorning his skull, and youthful eyes dancing at the prospect of what could unfold during his Real Kashmir’s debut I-League home game. He’s something of a legend in these parts. People walking by saluted as he sat beneath the façade of the TRC dargah on the far side of the ground.

“He has not missed a football game in Kashmir for 40 years,” whispered Nazir Ahmed, 40, but looking a lot older, in a reverential tone. “How could he miss Real Kashmir’s first game here? He’s been sitting here, waiting since morning,” added 22-year-old, Abid Raza, a self-confessed ‘mohalla’ footballer.

Ahmed, Raza and Shahban formed an unlikely trio at their club’s opening game at home, for many the first big ticket match in the Valley in nearly two decades.

For almost everyone present, the match signalled a return to the good old times of Shahban’s ’70s and ’80s, where football ruled the roost before insurgency took over the narrative. “Football mahaul mein tabdeeli lata hai (football changes the social and political atmosphere),” they said.

On workday Tuesday, scores of tiny groups made up the 10,500-odd crowd that formed the home support for the Valley’s team.

Not that the visiting Goan side were overawed—they enjoyed the better share of the exchanges in an absorbing first half, with young Lamgoulen Hangshing running down the left to provide for Willis Plaza and Dawda Cessay.

It was the shape that David Robertson has instilled in his Real Kashmir side, which held them in good stead, leaving it to Loveday Okechukwu to restore order and patiently build the attacks from the middle. Many a time the Kashmir attacks led to expectant ripples in the crowd. It was a bruising affair, but all eyes in the stands were on the wiry, lithe form of Danish Farooq, playing on Real Kashmir’s wide left midfield.

“Yeh hamara ladka hai (he is our boy),” Shahban peeled his eyes away from the action and pointed at the Real Kashmir No. 10 whenever the ball came his way. “Bahut shaandaar khelta hai (he plays great football),” he said like a proud grandparent watching over his prodigious scion. The ease of Farooq’s game and the knack of being in the right place at the right time flowed to the rest of his Real Kashmir teammates. Even though Churchill walked away moral winners in football terms—a hard-earned point in rapidly increasing afternoon chill and fatigue setting in—there was no doubt who was feeling more triumphant. Real Kashmir found a gushing fan in the visiting coach, Petre Gigiu of Romania.

“Very difficult game, very tough for us, but beyond that your team, very strong and very technical. Very, very good team. Congratulations,” he addressed the gathered journalists as if all of them formed part of the Real Kashmir collective.

The real drama came at the stroke of half-time. Fed from the deep, Aaron Katebe was on a goal-ward break that most would give their right arm for. As the Zambian bore down, unmarked and free, the Churchill goalkeeper James Kithan had no choice but to rush out of his area and scythe the threat early. Katebe clattered on to the floor and referee Tanmoy Dhar had no choice but to eject Kithan. The dangerous Hangshing was sacrificed for replacement keeper Vigneshwaran Baskaran, who made up for the adverse tilt in momentum with some good work under the bar.

With the advantage of an extra man on the field, Real Kashmir sensed their best chances coming. But they missed narrowly, or were denied by Baskaran. Still having the upper hand and egged on by the crowd, they kept stretching Eldor and Novakovic in the hope that they would get the break. But Churchill have come into this season on the dint of new steel and held on resolutely. Honours even, both teams were looking at the outcome in their own right, only that Real Kashmir were seeing the bigger picture and celebrating more.

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