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I-League 2021: The North Contenders, Real Kashmir With an Eclectic Mix; RoundGlass Punjab With an Enviable Squad

Jaydeep Basu |
Real Kashmir FC proved they belong amongst the top clubs in the last two seasons of the I-League, and, with the IFA Shield victory last month, they enter this season with a winning momentum. RoundGlass Punjab, on the contrary, have a championship winning side on paper, but it remains to be seen whether they could withstand the stark realities of a bio-bubbled Indian football.
I-League 2021 Countdown: Real Kashmir FC and RoundGlass Punjab FC

I-League 2021 Countdown: Real Kashmir FC and RoundGlass Punjab FC.

The 1986 Federation Cup in Srinagar was a smashing success. Almost every match was watched by a capacity crowd and, in the end, the final turned out to be a dream clash. Local favourites Mohun Bagan defeated arch rivals East Bengal in the tie-breaker to bag the trophy.

There were joyous scenes at the stadium after Mohun Bagan’s narrow shoot-out victory. The locals were ecstatic that “their” team had won the title. Those who thought Mohammedan Sporting, Kolkata, would receive all the support of the locals, were truly baffled.

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The reason behind an unexpected rise in the number of Mohun Bagan fans was simple. The green and maroon glamour outfit had a winger-turned-wing-back named Abdul Majeed, a Kashmiri footballer, who had risen through the ranks to command a six-figure annual payment in the professional world of Kolkata football in the 1980s.

With Majeed in the starting line-up, Mohun Bagan were a runaway hit. The locals promptly identified themselves with Mohun Bagan. Former India captain and senior Mohun Bagan official Sailen Manna later said: “We recruited Majeed simply on the basis of his on-field merit. I could never imagine the decision would help us with so much emotional support in this part of the world.”

But then, Majeed is not the only footballer from Jammu and Kashmir to play at the top tier. At least a dozen players from the valley had represented India at some level or the other, though none could flourish as much as Majeed, who went on to lead the national team.

Time and again, whenever a major all-India meet was held in Srinagar, the unmistakable passion of the local population for football had come to the fore. Yet, barring a couple of occasional institutional sides, no club from the state could make an impact at the national level. Real Kashmir FC have certainly filled the gap in these troubled times. 

To say David Robertson’s Real Kashmir could be the team to watch in the 2020-21 I-League won’t be an exaggeration. On the pitch, they have already proved themselves in the last couple of seasons. To finish third in their inaugural foray in the I-League in 2018-19 was enough to prove they were here to stay.

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This season, however, is different. For every team it is, and much more for Real Kashmir. Unlike few other teams, the “home” advantage had always been the strong point of RKFC. A fervent home crowd backed them to the hilt -- while the cold conditions were an added advantage -- whenever they played in the valley. It helped immensely. 

This time in Kolkata, the strict bio bubble and empty stands would offer them no such advantage. Apart from Mohammedan Sporting, no team in the current I-League would miss their fans as much as RKFC.

Yet, in this neo normal scenario, Real Kashmir FC have pulled off a coup that should have been Indian football “lead story” in 2020-21. Itt was drowned in the cacophony of corporate football. To win the IFA Shield against all odds is a huge achievement that cannot be measured by football skills alone.

True, there is a big difference between a week-long knock-out tournament and a 11-team league spread over three months. One can easily run out of steam. Fans would expect, and rightly so, that RKFC would do better. Because they definitely have the capacity to do so.

Nigerian striker Lukeman has already proved that he means business. Out of the six goals RKFC scored in the semifinals and final of IFA Shield, four were scored by him, including a hat-trick against the formidable Mohammedan Sporting. They also have the ever dependable Mason Robertson, the defender and son of the coach. With them will be two other foreigners – Zohib Islam Amiri from Afghanistan and Cameroonian Dipanda Dicka, who donned the jersey of five other I-League clubs before moving to Srinagar. 

A lot has been written and said about Real Kashmir’s local products like Danish Farooq, Farhan Ganie and newcomers like Adnan Ayoub, Shahnawaz Bashir, Shakir Ahmad and Shahid Nazir. But Real Kashmir are not all about foreigners and locals alone. They have an eclectic mix of players from across the country.

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Goalkeeper Mithun Samanta is from South 24 Parganas in West Bengal. His house, with thatched woods and mud-wall, was destroyed by cyclone Amphan. RKFC have players like Abhash Thapa, Sena Ralte or Samuel Kynshi, who have travelled from far off places to join the club. The Srinagar side exudes a Pan-India flavour which is hard to miss. 

Can the same be stated about RoundGlass Punjab FC, north India’s other representatives in the I-League? Perhaps, yes. Given the fact the club has roped in some known names from different parts of the country. The Punjab side is not one like the JCT or BSF units of yesteryears, who always took great pride in promoting local boys. With Sanju Pradhan, Soubhik Das, Bikash Yumnam and Cavin Lobo, Punjab FC have not ignored the demands of modern day football. 

But it is not their Indian line-up that has made Punjab an enviable lot. The very presence of the midfielder Joseba Betia is enough to start the fireworks. He proved it beyond doubt in the I-League last season. Mohun Bagan were then still the century plus old Mohun Bagan AC, when Betia played a major role in giving them the second I-League title. True, he hunted in pairs with Senegalese Baba Diawara, but the Spaniard alone is capable of scaring his way through any defence in India.

Among other foreign recruits, Bhutan’s Chencho Gyeltshen is a clever operator even though he is only 24. While he wasn’t exactly a huge hit for Bengaluru FC, his stint with Minerva Punjab FC was definitely noteworthy. With Betia around, Chencho, after all, won’t be short of defence splitting through passes this season.

All said and done, RoundGlass Punjab FC, under Curtis Fleming are a new entity still; everything about them is on paper. Things will truly unfold once they hit the pitch and in turn, get hit by the stark realities of Indian football. The club bosses have freely talked about their idea of taking Indian football to the next level. It remains to be seen how far they go in reaching their goal at the end of current I-League.

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