A strong crowd of 7540 supporters turned up on a cold afternoon at the Synthetic Club in Srinagar on 6 December, as Lonestar Kashmir FC made their historic home debut in the 2nd Division League, the second tier of the Indian domestic football structure.
In a dramatic encounter, the hosts were held by a scoreline of 2-2 by their opponents. It was an underwhelming result for Kashmir FC, who are aiming to become the first club from the state to qualify for the I-League. However, despite the result, the game marked a new beginning for football in the valley.
The club then went on to beat record 5-time national league champions 1-0 on Sunday, 10 January, to qualify for the final round of the league, which will now see Kashmir FC fight it out with five other clubs for a place in next season's I-League. The game against Dempo saw nearly 20,000 fans turn up in extremely cold conditions to cheer for the club.
A club with a local flavour
The brain behind the Lonestar Kashmir team is Hilal Rasool Parray, the only coach from Jammu & Kashmir to have an Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Pro Licence, the highest badge for a football coach in the continent. He says things are looking good for the club this season.
"We have gone into the 2nd Division with a majority of players from our own state. We have beaten Dempo both home and away, and are now in the final round. The performances have been very good so far, but there is still a long way to go from here," he tells Catch.
Prior to the start of the season, Lonestar Kashmir made a surprising decision. They would have no foreign player in the team despite the All India Football Federation (AIFF) allowing clubs in the 2nd tier to field two foreigners in a game.
The results, however, seem to have justified the decision, with the club now in the final round of the competition. "If you give one of our players good facilities to play in and good football education, he can be as good as any of the top foreign players playing in the country, which is why we have decided to play in the competition with only Indian players.
"The players in this squad have been trained and prepared very well to play at this level," a confident Parray explains.
The changing football scenery of Kashmir
Parray belongs to a new generation of Kashmiri coaches who have made a name for themselves in the domestic game. Sajid Dar, who holds an AFC A Licence, was appointed as the head coach of the Indian women's national team last year, and is one of the most prominent coaches from the state.
Two more caoches, Manzoor Dar and Satpal Singh, recently completed their A Licence courese, and things are suddenly looking bright for the profession in the state.
"There is abundant talent in this state, when it comes to the coaching profession. What we need is proper exposure. Right now, more people are coming into coaching; many are trying to attain the licences. I am the only coach from my state to have attained the Pro licence, but more are about to follow suit soon," Parray says.
The increase in the number of professional coaches is a sign of how things are changing in the local football scene in Kashmir. Lonestar Kashmir is the brainchild of Iftikhar Ahmad Lone, director of the Lonestar Group. He says his love for football inspired him to start a football club.
"I have always wanted to invest in sports in Kashmir. When I was studying the local sports scene some time back, I had opportunities to invest in cricket. However, I wanted to do something different. I had played football during my time in school and college, and I felt there was a vacuum in the football industry. I wanted to try and make a difference, and that is how Lonestar Kashmir came into being," he explains to Catch.
Still in its infancy, the club already runs teams in different age groups. The U18 team recently qualified for the final round of the U18 I-League after topping their group in the preliminary round, while the club also operates teams in other junior age-groups.
"We have players of different age groups, including many schoolkids, coming in to play for us. The interest shown by young players of the region has been really positive so far," Lone says.
Can football act as a peace-building tool in Kashmir?
"Today things are changing in the valley. When you see 20,000 people gathering to come and watch a game of football, it sends a very strong signal. I am not a political analyst, but I can tell you that the people of Kashmir want peace. They want to progress, to prosper, to be together, and things are certainly going in that direction gradually," Iftikhar Lone says.
"Kashmiris definitely want peace. At the end of the day, they want to enjoy themselves, like everyone else. If football can bring so many people together, then I am sure it can go a long way in bringing peace to the valley in future. We, at Lonestar Kashmir, would like to play a leading role in that regard," Hilal Rasool Parray quips in.
Parray and Lone both, however, agree that more people need to come in and invest in football in Kashmir for the sport to truly grow. "I believe we have set a good example for others to come and invest in the sport here," Parray says.
Since making their debut in the Indian league structure last year, Lonestar Kashmir have surprised many observers of the game. They finished second in the 2nd Division last season, missing I-League qualification by a whisker. Parray says the club is aiming high once again.
"Our aim has always been to qualify for the I-League. We are not participating in the 2nd Division just for the sake of it. We have to try and qualify for the top-flight," he asserts.
Can Lonestar Kashmir make it big in the Indian game?
"Initially, when we started the club, we didn't come here thinking about the I-League. The aim was to try and help in the development of the sport in the state; to give the youngsters a platform to play the game.
"Now when you see the enthusiasm of the people here; when you see capacity crowds for games played in negative temperatures, it gives us a lot of encouragement to keep going, to try and make it to the I-League," says Iftikhar Lone.
The veteran entrepreneur is enjoying the progress his club is making, and with I-League football looking like a realistic possibility, he says he is looking forward to the journey ahead.
"I have crossed the age of 60, and I feel I have been able to do something good for my state, for the people of Jammu & Kashmir. It gives me immense pleasure. The club has had tremendous support from everyone here since the day of its inception, and I am thankful for that," he says.
In a few weeks' time, Lonestar Kashmir will fight it out with five other clubs for a place in next season's I-League. With football enjoying a rebirth in Kashmir recently, qualification to I-League will come as a major boost for the local game.
However, irrespective of what happens this season, it would be imprudent to underestimate the role football can play in changing the climate of a strife-torn Kashmir.