Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir – As a child, Farhan Ganaie could usually be found playing football in the congested lanes of old Srinagar city.
It had never crossed his mind that the sport could be a career in a place where gunfights, curfews, and shutdowns were expected.
But earlier this month, he played with Real Kashmir FC, the small club from the disputed region, in a match under the I-league, the first division in India.
Security at the Real Kashmir ground is a reminder of the region’s challenges, which have resulted in three wars between India and Pakistan.
Armoured vehicles stand guard, policemen encircle the field and metal detectors are in place to check every spectator.
The team’s players come from the main city’s outskirts and have little professional training, but the young men, mostly in their early twenties, have already won hearts.
“From the age of five, when I started playing, it was only out of passion. Every time, my family would be upset. They thought I was wasting my time,” Ganaie, a midfielder, tells Al Jazeera.
The tall 23-year-old from Srinagar’s volatile Hawal area, who still struggles to afford new football boots at times, says representing Kashmir in the top-tier league is a “dream come true”.
|Farhan Ganai, 23, sits on the field during a practice session in Srinagar [Shuaib Bashir/Al Jazeera]|
“His father was always against him and wanted him to study hard and achieve something in life; that meant becoming a doctor or an engineer, never a footballer,” says Rafiqa Banoo, Ganaie’s mother.
“We were sure somehow, in a place like Kashmir, football meant no future.”
But now, after playing for the league in Kashmir, their son has bought home an unexpected moment of pride.
“In winters, when he was a kid, I had to find a particular flexible shoe for him in the markets so that he could play on the snow. He was so fond of the game,” Rafiqa says. “It is not easy for our children to dream like people in other places.”
The match on home turf earlier this month was one of the biggest sports events held in the region in recent years.
Thousands of residents braved the winter cold to cheer on the team in their yellow and blue strip; the result was a goalless draw.
“It was an emotional moment for us. To us it meant, football was taking a new birth in Kashmir and history was unfolding,” says the team’s striker, Danish Farooq.
Unlike Ganaie, for Farooq, a 22-year-old graduate, football had a legacy at home.
His father was a professional footballer, and his grandfather and uncle also used to play.
“As I kid, I would hold my father’s hand and go to play with him at a local ground,” says Farooq, who dreams of playing for international clubs.
The two players live a few kilometres apart in an area where clashes between young people and security forces are routine.
“I would lie and say I am going to a friend’s place, and would go to play,” says 23-year-old Ubaid Haroon, another footballer. “[My family] had concerns about my safety.”
Defender Muhammad Hammad, 21, switched from cricket to football in 2015, when he wasn’t selected for the team.
“Cricket was my childhood game,” he says. “But to my disappointment, I never got a chance to play a single national game. I never made it to the list. It was a major setback for me and I gave up my all desire for the game.”
His friends insisted he joined the local football team in Batamaloo, in uptown Srinagar.
“When I played in the local team, a football coach spotted me and said I must get training. That’s how my journey to football began.”
Because of the situation, we cannot think of pursuing it as a career. People play here for love. Football has united the people.
Tabysh Peerzada, 22-year-old spectator and engineering student
The seeds of Real Kashmir FC were sown in 2014 when two friends – Shamim Mehraj, a local newspaper editor and Sandeep Chatto, a hotelier – were looking for ways to keep young people entertained after devastating floods hit the region.
“My area was among the dozens that were saved in the 2014 floods. But when I would go out for an evening walk, I would see young kids, who I had earlier seen playing football, smoking cigarettes,” Mehraj told Al Jazeera.
“After that, I called my friends in different places for help. They asked if I needed money. But I told them to send 1,000 footballs to Kashmir. They did, and I distributed them among the kids.
“At that time I had no idea where we would reach, but that’s how the idea of the club was born,” said the 37-year-old football fan, who played in college and university.
The club took formal shape in March 2016, four months before a civilian uprising following the killing of rebel commander Burhan Wani.
“The boys used to practice during the shutdowns, but when there was no chance, they could not do it,” says Mehraj.
The team got a major push after David Robertson, a Scottish footballer, agreed to coach them.
“When he came to Kashmir, there was heavy snowfall. There was no electricity and the internet. He wanted to go back but I somehow convinced him to stay.”
In another mark of success, Adidas is the club’s kit partner. Real Kashmir FC is the only club in India with which the sports giant has partnered, says Mehraj.
|Real Kashmir FC coach David Robertson with the players during a practice session [Shuaib Bashir/Al Jazeera]|
On Tuesday, the team will compete against India’s Mohun Bagan club, which has a 129-year history.
“Football is an old passion in Kashmir,” says 55-year-old Kashmiri player Abdul Majid Kakroo, who captained India in the Nehru Cup.
The game has undergone major changes in the two decades of conflict in the region, he added.
“There were different tournaments and not a league like this. I played international football for India for nine years and was a captain. The situation was better when we used to play. But no tournament took place from 1990 to 1996.”
Hilal Parray, another former footballer, said the game’s popularity dropped in the 1990s.
There are nerves amid the excitement ahead of Tuesday’s game on home ground with residents wary of violence.
“We hope this will revive the game and bring back the enthusiasm that was among the players before the violence started in the nineties, when the armed rebellion began in Kashmir,” says 60-year-old Abdul Hamid, who travelled from the outskirts of the city to watch the first match.
Tabysh Peerzada, a 22-year-old engineering student, says that. compared with cricket, football has a younger set of fans.
“Because of the situation, we cannot think of pursuing it as a career. People play here for love,” he says. “Football has united the people.”
|Real Kashmir FC are preparing for a big game on Tuesday against India‘s Mohun Bagan [Shuaib Bashir/Al Jazeera]|