You might not have heard of Real Kashmir F.C., but the small football team in northern India is making a big noise.
Based in the mountainous city of Srinagar, Real Kashmir has only been in existence for two years but has already achieved promotion into India’s top flight.
The club’s remarkable journey began shortly after the 2014 floods which devastated the Kashmir Valley, killing hundreds and destroying homes.
Two local friends — businessman Sandeep Chattoo and newspaper editor Shamim Meraj — saw an area suffering and wanted to help.
“Once the water level receded, these boys would meet every evening. Shamim would see them doing nothing but wasting their time,” Chattoo, the club’s co-owner, told CNN Sport.
The pair wanted to give the boys a purpose, so they bought some footballs and watched as interest spread throughout the community.
“Suddenly all the kids in the area started playing,” said Chattoo.
It wasn’t just floods blighting the region.
India and Pakistan have been fighting over Kashmir since both countries gained independence in 1947.
Several domestic militant groups, demanding either independence for Kashmir or for the area to become part of Pakistan, have clashed with Indian security forces in recent years and tourists are generally wary of visiting the area.
As a way of changing perceptions, Chattoo and Meraj began to seriously think about setting up an official team. Soon they were co-owners of a football club.
“We wanted to create something for Kashmir that would mean the same as what Manchester United means to the UK and what Barcelona means to Spain,” Chattoo said.
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The two friends set up basic training sessions for the local community, initially just for fun.
But as the sessions grew in popularity, they felt ready to enter a team into local tournaments.
The amateur club began to attract better and more experienced players and were eventually persuaded to turn professional.
It entered I-League’s 2nd division for the 2016-17 season and went on to win the league in the following year — securing promotion to the I-League.
The nationwide division shares top-flight status with the Indian Super League (ISL), with the eventual winner qualifying for the Asian Champions League (AFC).
‘I had never been to India’
The club’s rise also has a lot to do with current manager David Robertson, who is credited with instilling an atmosphere of professionalism.
“There was this notion that if you weren’t playing for Real Madrid or Barcelona, you weren’t professional players. We’ve managed to change that now,” said the manager.
Robertson had a successful playing career in Britain but moved to Kashmir in January 2017, following 10 years coaching in the US.
An agent had offered the Scot three opportunities. One in China, one in Uganda and the Kashmir job. The rest is history.
“I had never been to India, I had no idea about Kashmir, nothing about Indian football. But what appealed was the fact it was a new club,” said the former Rangers and Leeds United player.
“You had no idea how far it could go, what the potential was and it gave me something to stamp my mark on and help a good cause.”
His transition to rural India wasn’t easy as he grappled with no internet, a lot of snow and plenty of power cuts.
“I wanted to go home but I was persuaded to stay. I’m glad I did because it’s been the greatest two years of football I’ve had,” Robertson said.
Life as Real Kashmir’s manager comes with a unique set of challenges. The club still shares the training ground with other local teams and Robertson often doesn’t know what time they’ll be training on the artificial surface.
Developing facilities at their Srinagar-based complex is certainly a top priority for both the manager and owners.
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Promotion to India’s I-League was accompanied by a real coup when German sportswear giant Adidas announced it was partnering with the club ahead of the new season.
The global brand will be the team’s official kit sponsor for the 2018-19 season and has already helped “redefine” the club.
“Through sport, we have the power to change lives and the Real Kashmir team is a great example of this,” said Dave Thomas, Managing Director of Adidas India.
“Real Kashmir and its players have shown dedication and perseverance under difficult circumstances and we are proud to support them as they create history.”
Chattoo hopes the deal will help encourage the region’s youth to participate more in sports and has already seen a positive change in the valley.
“We have seen a lot of excitement about the partnership already, there is a great buzz in Kashmir and all over India,” Chattoo told CNN.
‘Everyone has a reason to smile’
Meanwhile, Robertson has witnessed the club’s fan base grow from virtually nothing in his short time in India. He hopes the media attention and televising of games will see that growth continue.
He believes his players, which include his own son Mason, can deal with the step up in quality this season and has urged them to use the local community’s enthusiasm for the club’s project as motivation.
“We want to preserve our status and become an established team in the I-League. There has been so much time, effort and money that has gone into building the club,” Robertson said.
No matter how successful they become, Chattoo is determined to stay true to the beliefs that helped found the club.
He believes success can heal the divides of their troubled region which is already seeing the benefits of the team’s rise.
New floodlights for the local pitch will soon be installed, allowing more time for more people to participate in the game.
“Now everyone in Kashmir has a reason to smile and a reason to unite,” Chattoo told CNN.
“The success of our team and the success of our club is making everybody look up to us.”
A good start
The region certainly had something to smile about in their team’s opening game of the new season.
A late goal from Gnohere Krizo guided Real Kashmir to a 1-0 win away to reigning champions Minerva Punjab F.C.
The victory will give the underdogs confidence as they prepare to host Churchill Brothers in their first home game in the top flight.
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Who knows how far they can go?