Winter is coming: Snow sets stage for Real Kashmir's home debut
In Kashmiri, the word for snow is sheen. In English, the word sheen means a lustre, a gleam, a luminosity. When Real Kashmir FC turn up in front of their home fans for the first time in the I-League First Division against Churchill Brothers on Tuesday, they will hope that the sheen -- in either Kashmiri or English, if not both -- will serve its purpose. It is a match that is so loaded down with significance, history, opportunity for those participating and watching, that Real Kashmir must be grateful for at least getting their first match out of the way, upsetting the defending champions Minerva FC last week. It was a patchy performance against Minerva; the Kashmiri players say it had taken time for their nerves to fall away. In Srinagar, they will want the familiarity of home to produce football of a quality that shines.
At the press briefing, RKFC coach David Robertson, the catalyst for the team's progress into the first division, understood what the match meant to the locals, "We are very excited, it's a huge event... we're looking at a lot of firsts. It is another day for history." Before fronting the cameras, he sat in a corner quietly watching preparations. When asked how he was doing, Robertson's one word reply was: "pressure." Pressure for his team to live up to the expectations they had themselves created by doing what had never been thought of as possible.
For RKFC's home debut, it would seem the elements themselves have tried to stretch the term "home advantage" to its fullest. On Saturday, for the first time in nine years, there was November snowfall in Srinagar. Winter had arrived early -- that is, one of the three versions of Kashmir winters the locals describe. If you believe them, this was a manageable cold. "Anything up to zero degrees is fine for us," RKFC media manager Omar Amin Babri said to aghast outsiders, swathed head to foot and dreaming of hot tea.
The weather forecast had promised a sunshine on Monday that never turned up. The skies stayed forty shades of slate grey, mercifully without wind, and the snow on the hilltops around the ground was a reminder of what could be. Real Kashmir, with players from all parts, practised first, at 10am in five degrees Celsius. RKFC captain Loveday Enyinnaya comes from Nigeria, where he says, with a grin, "the weather around the country is always like Goa."
It is hoped the fervour of the local crowd, RKFC's familiarity with the altitude to start with (Srinagar is the now the I-League's highest venue, at 5,200ft) and its compact ground will also play their part. Srinagar's TRC Football Turf is the town's only serviceable football turf and was caught up in familiar nth-hour drama before what will be a day marked down in the state's football chronicles. In the matter of 45 days/six weeks, a dumpy, half-hearted single-storey venue has been turned into a piece of picturesque Indian football architecture; the two dressing rooms are housed in blocks either side of the main stand, their steep gabled-roof-and-beams always part of the local landscape. There will be ticketing but it is said they will be given out free in order to fill the 15,000-seater stands.
Much, however, is still left unfinished and on Monday morning, an irate district commissioner arrived having been ordered by the governor to give the local contractor a shellacking. A delay in paving the access into the stadium meant the snow had turned the entrance into a muddy marsh. There are parts still being soldered and fitted and wired up, boxes and sacks of equipment and material lying around, chairs being carried up to galleries where the gentry will watch. The bucket seats needed for the on-field dugouts were, when last checked, still on the other side of the Banihal Pass as the highway had been cut off due to the unexpected turn in the weather.
Churchill in fact found themselves at the centre of the Saturday snowfall, pitched from Chennai's 35 degrees straight onto a flight buffeted by turbulence all through its landing into the Valley. Defender Wayne Vaz, one of the few local players who had been to Kashmir, albeit in May a few years ago with an Air India team, said, "Usually when we are landing in Kashmir we can see the beautiful mountains -- but at that time there was all fog. We couldn't see anything. We were really scared whether we were going to land properly or not, but we landed and we are fine and we are ready for tomorrow's game." Team manager Denzil Serrao of south Goa's Carmona village was seeing snow for the first time, "I was excited, but it was so, so cold."
On Sunday, with the ground covered with the snow left over from Saturday's dramatic white out, Churchill's practice could only last an hour:
On Monday, they turned up with energy and jokes on full beam, and only three out of 22 men among them with bare knees and hands. Everyone else wore either leggings or gloves or both, even as the temperatures pushed up to 12-13° C. "We come from the shore, and in the mountains we have problems with breathing and it takes time." Along with the usual stretching and warming up "to wake up our joints and get them activated", said Vaz, extra protection for the toes, taping them up with whatever was available, was absolute priority. "The toes get numb really soon and when we get stamped on or anything, it hurts more than normal."
In the formal press conferences, the coaches and captains on both side tried to wave away chat about the weather, offering the football-is-everything responses. Churchill's captain, the Lebanese international Hussein Eldor, said he'd played in such weather himself in Germany and the team's four foreigners were used to the conditions, "We have come here for a reason, and don't think the atmosphere will make a difference. You will face many things in a championship and have to be ready for it."
It will be hard to ignore Tuesday's result, but already Real Kashmir have already shown their state's young men that football's path offers more freedoms than they could have imagined. No one illustrates that more than their 21-year-old defender Muhammad Hammad, who at 16 was a promising junior batsman at club level. After being top scorer in a crucial selection match, he went to look for his name on the team list, only to be told the team had already left town for the tournament and he wasn't on it. From that day, Hammad turned to football and has gone from being a Batmaloo mohalla player to one of the three locals in a starting XI of an I-League First Division team. In Kashmiri football, the distance from sheen to sheen is shorter than it has ever been.