Over the course of an afternoon, Real Kashmir FC were given an extended version of what their debut season in the I-League would be like. Fifteen minutes before kick-off, the crowd was sparse, with genuine worry about how many would turn up to watch the first I-League first-division match to be held in the state. Fifteen minutes in, fans of several stripes, men and a few women (also sighted: one baby), had surged and fast-walked into the ground, packed the stands (the official numbers had them at 10,251) to the noise of drums, chanting and curses. At the final whistle, the applause drowned out a 0-0 finish against a ten-man Churchill Brothers of Goa and the understanding that in the big boys' league, goals don't come easy.
In the run-up to the match, everything had appeared made for the home team: an upsurge of optimism, RKFC having opened the first division with a win over defending champions Minerva Punjab, unprecedented snowfall and miserable weather three days in, and a wellspring of goodwill. The sun turned up today, the skies stayed blue and Churchill showed RKFC that they were up for any fight, even if it meant being a man down with their first-choice goalkeeper sent off at the end of the first half.
Real Kashmir were the physically more dominant team, stronger in the air, stronger off the long balls, but unable to put away their chances; striker Gnohere Krizo was man-marked with an adhesive ferocity by the two-man tag team of Churchill captain Hussein Eldor and Wayne Vaz, several of RKFC's shots on goal being fisted away, hitting the crossbar or flying wide. Churchill's three-away-match streak has seen them unbeaten with three points to their name.
Real Kashmir will now be now grateful that they are past their first week in the I-League, with its two emotionally draining matches. Local hero Danish Farooq, who was named player of the match, did say that he was sorry the team "didn't put in a good result" -- by which he meant a victory. "But we have done well to play in our home ground, we players feel proud to play in our home ground... it is a great opportunity for us and we have do better in the next match."
With the excitement bubbling over and spilling into chaos, coach David Robertson was just relieved that the team's first two matches have ended in four points, with no goals conceded. Robertson walked into his new dressing room this morning and found no players' kits hanging on the hooks where they should have been, with random handymen around still fixing bits and pieces. "I was frustrated that the things that were usually done weren't done today because everyone was focused on everything outside... it was a huge, huge day." Robertson swept up some rubbish into a bin, his focus "to make sure that the players feel like a million bucks walking today into their home dressing room and walking out to the home crowd... I didn't want what was on the inside to take away from them what was the day itself."
On the outside, RKFC's people waited and it was a football crowd like few have seen in Srinagar before today. Their demographic now extends beyond the pure football faithful and includes those entranced by the idea of a Kashmiri team representing them at the national level, skills at their feet and heads held high. Robertson said he saw "a passion towards the team and even before the game there was a chanting of the players' names." In I-League 2, he remembered, "no one came to the games. Now the players feel very, very special."
When the match began, the sudden surge of schoolboys from DPS Srinagar onto one side of the western stands did not make for the usual mix of kids bused into sports events. Clad in blazers with a good mix of other cool, young Srinagar men, they chanted vociferously non-stop through the 90 minutes. It was first "Kashmir-Kashmir, Real Kashmir", then curses directed at the visitors, with an ominous noise at the home team ("You have to face us," "Our pride depends on you"). On their far side was another stand full of young men who, sitting behind the RKFC dugout, produced the drums and their own brand of the Kashmiri football sound. There was chanting in Kashmiri, Hindi and even some version of Champions League noise. Café owner Kamran, who was in the thick of the noisy millennial mix, said, "This is huge, this day is huge, for Srinagar, for Kashmir. We are so proud of them."
On the eastern stands, under the distinctive mosque that makes for the instant identification of the TRC ground, sat the city's football aficionados observing the proceedings with wise detachment. One of them, a 23-year-old, watched with a twinge of envy and regret. Zahid Yakub had played for the first Kashmiri team that made it to the I-League second division and also came within a whisker of qualifying. Right wingback for Lonestar FC, Zahid had played on the two occasions that his team had a chance of promotion and has had to follow Real Kashmir completely tearing up a familiar, sorry script. Zahid had played alongside RKFC defender Muhammad Hammad in the juniors and on Tuesday saw him in an I-League starting XI. "Kya karein? Yeh cheezein ho jaati hain (What to do? These things happen). Real Kashmir took their football very seriously, spent a lot of money...."
Sitting next to Zahid was 60-year-old Ghulam Hasan who, halfway into the first half, said, "J&K Bank plays better than them." Every inch a Kashmiri elder in his pheran, skullcap and surreptitious half-time cigarette, he was annoyed no goals had been scored. He had taken two forms of transport (Tata Sumo and bus) to get from his neighbourhood in Hazratbal to the ground because he heard a good game was on. Himself a goalkeeper in his youth for a local club, Asar FC, he scolded the players whose "ghabrahat" (anxiety/worry) was leading to sloppy airy crosses and much scrambling in the midfield. "They could have scored three goals, these boys," he said between discreet drags of his cigarette.
The two flanks of the stadium were balanced by the sceptics ("If Churchill score, they won't concede; if Kashmir score, they will concede") and the worshipful ("We love you, Danish, bad luck, next time") who, when the match ended, found themselves appreciative of the opposition as well. As much as they appreciate having a new faithful, it is also clear who the RKFC players will look to for appreciation. At the end of a heady afternoon, Hammad stood outside the stadium waiting for his brother to pick him up. As if he had just finished football practice rather than played the biggest match of his life. Clad in his spanking-new Adidas post-match tracksuit, Hammad said what everyone at the game felt, smiling ruefully, "Should have been three points."