New Delhi - Bullets are heard every
day in the world's most militarised zone, but shots fired on goal by
Danish Farooq have become a revelation in Kashmir.
striker symbolises a fairytale rise by Real Kashmir, the first club
from the war-torn Himalayan region to make it into India's top football
With the help of Scottish coach David Robertson, the Snow
Leopards have emerged as serious title contenders in their debut
I-League season and on Wednesday beat Gokulam Kerala 1-0 to go top of
Farooq has defied stone-pelting protesters and pellets shot by security forces to make it to training.
have struggled a lot. But whatever the situation, I try not to miss
practice," said Farooq, whose father was also a professional footballer,
playing for Mohammedan Sporting, one of India's oldest clubs.
"Playing in the I-League is a dream come true and I am living that dream every day."
Other players are also
wary of the security situation and would rather join clubs outside of
Indian-administered Kashmir, which is also claimed by neighbouring
Pakistan and where tens of thousands have died in conflict since the
There are some 500 000 Indian soldiers and police in the
region to combat rebels battling for independence or a merger with
The insurgency has soured relations between the two
countries for decades, while elsewhere in India Kashmiris are viewed
"If you are a Kashmiri, even if you are a sportsperson, you are labelled a terrorist," said midfielder Khalid Qayoom.
"We want to change that perception. Kashmiris are not terrorists, it is just a label thrust on us."
there were stark reminders of the troubles outside the stadium - which
is covered with snow for much of the football season - after his
team's 1-0 home win over Chennai City last week.
Armed police and armoured vehicles patrolled the perimeter as 15 000 rapturous fans cheered the hometown heroes.
Kashmir have come a long way since newspaper editor Shamim Meraj and
businessman Sandeep Chattoo raised funds to buy 500 footballs to keep
local youths occupied after deadly floods in 2014.
The club took
formal shape in March 2016, four months before a civilian uprising
triggered by the killing of popular 21-year-old rebel leader Burhan
Chattoo said Real Kashmir started as "a joke".
"We just threw out the idea and went step-by-step. I had no idea how far it would go," he said.
pair brought on as coach Scotland's David Robertson, a former Aberdeen
and Rangers defender, while Adidas agreed to a kit sponsorship -- the
only Indian team to get the sportswear giant's money.
"We found our calling when we got to know... how the team
has set on a mission to bring a positive change in the valley," said
Adidas marketing chief Sharad Singla.
Robertson declined coaching
offers from clubs in China and Uganda to take charge at the Snow
Leopards but had never visited India before and considered abandoning
the club after just two days in Kashmir, after a power and internet
outage cut him off from family back home.
"I was ready to go. But then the club owner persuaded me to stay, and now I am so glad that he did that," he said.
"Overall for me the pleasing thing is that the success of the team has put Kashmir on the football map."
Robertson even convinced his son Mason to quit a full-time
contract with Scottish side Peterhead to join the team as a midfielder.
under-15 coach Owais Farooq said Real Kashmir's sudden triumphs had
brought about a surge of interest in the sport among Kashmir's
"I receive so many calls every day from parents who
want to enrol their children in training programmes but we don't have
enough grounds to train," he said.
an afterthought in cricket-mad India, and the country's 103rd-ranked
international side is a notorious underachiever which has never
participated in a World Cup.
The sport was popular in Kashmir
before an armed rebellion against Indian rule erupted in the 1990s,
after which no tournament was held for almost two decades.
But Real Kashmir have given locals a fresh taste for football success.
"You can see the love that the people have given us," said club co-owner Meraj. "That's the biggest takeaway for us."
Thirty-five-year-old hotel worker Parvaiz Ahmad Reshi said he only started watching football on TV because of the club.
have been hooked on it ever since," he said. "When I watch the game I
forget my troubles. It's so good to have something apart from violence
and killings to talk about."