On a night of torrential rain, hundreds of miles from home and for the first time in their history, a team from Jammu & Kashmir entered the first division of the I-League. At the FSV arena in Bengaluru, Real Kashmir FC, a club formed in the aftermath of the 2014 floods, beat Hindustan FC of Delhi 3-2 to win qualification into the highest rung of league football in India.
The teams went into half time with Kashmir 2-1 ahead, but as the skies opened overhead, the thunder crashed and lightning streaked across the skies, a goal against the run of play by substitute Nadong Bhutia, half-way into the second half was like an electric charge to Real Kashmir and the few dozen spectators at the venue. They included the owners of the Real Kashmir team, wives and children, exhorting their team, as they tried to hold back the Hindustan counterattack after the fourth goal of the evening.
When it rained harder, the thin cover over the spectators heads not strong enough to hold off the water, one of the team owners laughed, "We're going to be playing in the snow and you guys are getting scared of rain."
Hindustan, a team of skill and adept passing, had not lost a game all season and were also pushing to become the first team from Delhi to qualify for the I-League first division. They needed a win on the night to go through, knowing that a draw would do for Real Kashmir. What they couldn't match on Wednesday night, was the desperation and sheer hunger that coursed through their opposition. Hindustan scored a second time, with less than fifteen minutes to go; members of the Kashmir support staff, soaked to the skin, were standing on benches in the viewing gallery, shouting "handball" at the referee before lapsing into Kashmiri curses. Bhutia's goal, however, had done its duty.
"I think this victory is a tribute to the people, specially the young men of Kashmir who refuse to give up despite all that is going on there," Shamim Meraj, owner of Real Kashmir FC, said. "And I think finally Kashmir has something they can own and cheer for at the highest possible level in India."
When the final whistle went, and Hindustan trooped off disconsolate, the Real Kashmir team collapsed on the field and shrieked with relief and exhilaration. As Real Kashmir collected their medals and the I-League Second Division trophy, the rain never stopped and their cup never stopped running over.