Real Kashmir FC (RKFC) have their first point at home and remain unbeaten in their debut season of the I-League after the 0-0 draw against Churchill Brothers in Srinagar (Pic: Twitter, Nilanjan Dutta).
The seats in the stadium were filled before kickoff — the historic kick off, a first for football in India, where Kashmir, that Kashmir, this Kashmir, freezing cold Kashmir hosted an I-league game for the first time in history. Even the weather didn’t want to play spoilsport. Where a day before there was snow, there was sun. The TRC Turf Ground was basking in the most glorious afternoon sun on November 6.
When the referee blew the whistle to kickstart a frenetic 90 minutes in 13 degrees (and dropping despite the sun), people were still streaming in. Next to the broadcasters’ camera, they sat, on balconies they sat, high on the stands, and low in the clubhouse, Srinagar came to embrace Real Kashmir FC’s (RKFC’s) home debut. The party had formally begun.
A friend had once very poignantly told me that Kashmiri was less an ethnicity and more a state of mind. Growing up, Kashmir was an ideal, a destination that was always top of the holiday list but rarely on the achievable list. Kashmir was poetry. Kashmir was poignant. Kashmir was poise.
None of that applies to their football. It is harsh to judge a style based on one club’s representation over 180 minutes played, but what else are journalists to do. Kashmiri football is about the long ball. Hoofed, launched, or cursorily kicked, against Churchill Brothers, despite being a man up for 45 minutes, RKFC found all their success, and yet none really, in the long ball.
Kashmir, incidentally, was also cold. It was a fact the gathered press corps made sure to highlight in all the previews before the game. The cold, the snow (the sheen in Kashmiri) was a huge advantage. The home team was supposed to have an edge, the outsiders misfits, sunburnt beach boys who would struggle to breathe in the Valley.
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Everyone conveniently forgot that these were elite athletes. The margins are thin. Churchill recovered well, and for periods in the game, looked the stronger team. RKFC, it must be noted, had enough ‘outsiders’ of their own, to not be as comfortable as was expected. To their credit though, buoyed by an electric crowd, they hustled hard early.
In their I-League debut — a 1-0 victory over defending champions Minerva Punjab FC — they were guilty of starting slowly, and perhaps too cautiously. At home, they banished that fear. Their first attempt came courtesy Gnohere Krizo in the fifth minute. A minute later, Danish Farooq, local boy, number 10, hit the crossbar, a low cross from the left finding him five yards from goal with the goalkeeper to beat. In retrospect it was a terrible miss.
Six minutes later, Lamgoulen Hangshing, perhaps the shortest player on the pitch, found himself in RKFC’s box, unmarked, unheeded, and looped his header over the bar. Perhaps the best quality of this game, was defined right then. It was going to be end-to-end. The way the North likes it. A Kashmiri state of mind.
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The most meaningful moment of the first half — in which Churchill shaded the possession, RKFC the fouls and both teams had six shots but registered only one each on target — came on the brink of halftime. Churchill Brothers’ otherwise excellent centre half Nenad Novakovic clumsily passed the ball back to his goalkeeper. The ball lost pace, fell to RKFC’s Zambian import Aaron Katebe.
As Katebe gathered, Churchill’s goalkeeper James Kithan closed him down. Katebe tried to round him, but Kithan slid hard and bravely palmed the ball away. It was a great bit of goalkeeping, in a tough one-on-one situation that would most certainly have led to a goal. Unfortunately, all of this happened outside the box, and Kithan, was duly red carded, chastised and sent for an early shower. Churchill were down to 10, playing with their gloves on, in unfamiliar conditions, and the RKFC fans roared their team on.
The problem with being an underdog team though is that it doesn’t suit you to be favourites. In the second half, EKFC were expected to hold more of the ball, expected to control the game, and expected to tire Churchill out. Logic and math dictated all this. In truth, they were uncomfortable being a man up. Their game plan (the long ball towards Krezo) was thrown into disarray as Churchill defended deep and in numbers. Krezo hit the crossbar (that damned piece of iron vexing everything, at that altitude) again in the 65th minute, and that was the closest anyone came.
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In the end, it ended as it began with a lot of wayward shooting in between. 0-0. Real Kashmir have their first point at home. They remain unbeaten in their debut season of the I-League. Churchill have braved the chill and go back to Goa with a point for their troubles.
Sport is an escape from life’s quotidian problems. Unfortunately RKFC’s journey, from the second division to hosting a home game in the I-league meant negotiating and sidestepping many of those problems (a suitable playing surface, and a safe and sufficient dressing room the most basic of them).
For the thousands that turned out (the attendance numbers when released will make for joyful reading) this was a lovely afternoon out. In November, in the chill, RKFC brought some warmth to the valley. More games will follow. So, hopefully, will the crowds. They were the best thing to emerge out of the TRC Turf today.
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