AS THE INDIAN FOOTBALL FANS welcome a new year, they are being treated to an early peek of a time where they can once again go to a stadium to watch their favourite club play.
Although the ISL and I-League are holding their 2020-21 season competitions fully behind closed doors inside a bio-bubble to keep players & staff protected from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, fans have started to return to the football arena in Jammu & Kashmir for the first time since the I-League 2019-20 season was ended prematurely due to health concerns.
The Real Kashmir Cup, organized by Real Kashmir FC in association with AIFF, Jammu & Kashmir Football Association and Jammu & Kashmir Sport Council, is being held at Srinagar's TRC Turf Ground with 18 teams from all around the state as well as rest of the country (ARA FC, TASM FC Punjab etc) competing in the inaugural edition. The matches are being broadcast live on DD Kashir & DD Sports. But what makes it stand apart from the other competitions being held this season is that a limited number of fans are also being allowed in the stands.
When Real Kashmir FC entered the I-League, Srinagar quickly caught the fascination of fans around the country with the atmosphere created by packed crowds in the picturesque stadium. Majid Yousuf Dar, Executive Officer of J&K Sport Council and an AIFF Match Commissioner, said that despite the lockdowns the enthusiasm of fans has never wavered,
"In kashmir you'll see football lovers all over. They love to witness every match, whatever the conditions. I-League is the best example. They support every team. They support the game, not any particular club... the Real Kashmir Cup also witnessing a decent crowd of around a thousand per match."
Althugh the official capacity of the TRC Turf Ground is 10,000 (which often leads to overflow during the I-League matches), the reason for limiting the number to a fraction of that, Mr Majid explained, was due to the COVID-19 safety precautions being practiced by the tournament's organizers,
"The activity started with Premier League which is being organised by J&K Sports Council in four sports disciplines... football, hockey, volleyball and kabaddi, in all 20 districts of Jammu & Kashmir. This was the first activity after lockdown in J&K and response was huge. All SOP and directions were followed like limited gathering, wearing of masks and seating at distance. The same steps were followed in the Real Kashmir Cup as the TRC Stadium is a property of Sports Council and permission was given to Real Kashmir only after obtaining undertaking of adhering to the health advisories strictly."
While the Real Kashmir FC first team - which recently won the IFA Shield - is still in Kolkata awaiting the start of their I-League 2020-21 campaign, the club has fielded two teams (Real Kashmir Reserves & Real Kashmir Elites) in this tournament. The competition, along with promoting local football, has also become a way for the club to maintain a connection to its fans in a season when the team is unable to play in their home city.
For fans from the rest of the country, the sight of these fans sitting back in the spacious stands and enjoying an afternoon of football evokes nostalgia as well as hope for an opportunity to do the same in the not so distant future. Leading the way in getting sports back to normalcy is yet another feather in Kashmir's cap following Real Kashmir FC's historic IFA Shield triumph.