Real Kashmir return home to heroes' welcome

After a month-long, cross country trek through the rigours of the I-League second division group games, Real Kashmir FC returned home to Srinagar, to an unexpected welcome.

Undefeated and feted, the local crop of the first team from Kashmir to make it into the I-League first division discovered a cult hero waiting.

The most popular policeman in Srinagar, IG (Traffic) Basant Rath, was in the arrival lounge. Rath is something of a superstar amongst the local youth, for his unwavering zeal against rule-breakers - no matter how prominent in local business or politics - and for being outspoken on social media.

Amidst a slew of selfies, Rath, nicknamed 'Dabang' here, dispensed advice to the players for Real Kashmir's contests against Mohun Bagan and East Bengal next season. "It's private stuff," Rath tossed a quote our way when asked what was discussed.

A few steps away from Rath, the team then ran into a local Kashmiri returning home after 28 years. The warmest reception, however, waited for the squad as they stepped into the unnervingly bright afternoon sunshine.

Waiting in uniforms for their heroes, Real Kashmir academy boys from the under-18, under-15 and under-13 categories rushed over with placards and garlands in their hands, moonbeam smiles on theirfaces and shouts of "champ, champ" in the air. Ishfaq Hussain, who works alongside a Scottish team of coach David Robertson and his assistant Jimmy Lindsay, found himself smothered by the teenagers.

There would have been even more boys than the two dozen and even more people than the 40-odd at the airport, had it not been for a curfew downtown and a general strike across the valley.

News of the curfew and the general strike in the valley had reached the team during their stopover in Delhi after their title victory in Bangalore. Five of the players belong to the 'downtown' area under curfew. They knew the alternate route they would have to take back home through it. Before leaving Delhi they joked amongst each other: "Use all the internet you can. It's going to get stopped back home."

It had taken the Real Kashmir local crew a considerable argument with airport security to carry in a large placard with the word "Champions" on it. The argument ranged from the placard being too dangerous to be flailed around the airport entrance, to whether it was in fact ambush advertising for a biscuit brand.

The placard eventually made it through, and there were plenty of photos against it on the airport lawns. A clutch of players could be found giving interviews on the roadside outside the heavily fortified Badgam airport, to those journalists who couldn't get in on time.

Real Kashmir FC are now everyone's team, born of the community, carrying local aspirations and of course, local budgets. At one point, a return train journey from Delhi to Jammu was being contemplated due to the hair-raising high-season ticket prices. But owner Shamim Meraj found fellow travelers with check books and two flights from Bangalore it was going to be.

At the airport, the players were in their travelling uniform; to outsiders, they were a group of personable young men in blue and yellow with one heck of a trophy. People in the Delhi airport departure area took photographs and shook hands. As the team boarded the flight, the Go Air staff congratulated them.

In Srinagar, while waiting to get off the plane, fellow passengers, many first timers to the Valley, discovered their achievement and offered profuse congratulations. Ifkham Tariq Mir, one of the goalscorers on Wednesday night in the match that took the team into the first division, carried the team silverware and replied graciously.

"Thank you" he told the tourists, "and welcome to Kashmir."