Real Kashmir FC: How the Snow Leopards chased down an impossible dream

Real Kashmir FC’s IFA Shield 2020 victory was the official stamp in Indian football’s biggest underdog story.

By Utathya Nag ·

The most inspiring stories often have the harshest of realities as a backdrop. And Real Kashmir FC’s rise in Indian football is, perhaps, the perfect testimony to that.

The Snow Leopards, as they are fondly called, won the IFA Shield 2020 to mark their first major domestic triumph since their inception in 2016.

While the feat may not quite match up to the success stories teams like Bengaluru FC scripted in the first five years of their existence on paper, Real Kashmir’s story, and very existence, is simply special.

Here’s a recap of how the team from Srinagar scripted a dream and wrote Indian football’s biggest underdog story.

Real Kashmir FC’s origin: when football trumped barbwires

Understanding Real Kashmir FC’s importance requires an understanding of Jammu and Kashmir – the club’s birthplace.

Engulfed in political turmoil and ravaged by militancy for the better part of the last 70 years, the Kashmir valley, once known as heaven on earth, has been the most militarized zone in the world for a while now.

In a place where barbwire roadblocks, frequent curfews and complete communication blackouts often bring daily life to a standstill, footballing dreams seem like an unaffordable luxury.

The valley still managed to produce a handful of fine footballers over the years like Abdul Majeed Kakroo – the first Kashmiri to captain the Indian football team – and former India international and Indian Super League (ISL) winner Mehrajuddin Wadoo.

But Kashmir never had a club representing the state at the top tier of Indian football. Real Kashmir FC changed that in 2018.

The seeds of Real Kashmir FC were sowed in 2014 after devastating floods swept through the region causing massive loss of life and property. To keep the youth -- who had lost much during the floods -- engaged, Shamim Mehraj, editor of a local newspaper called Kashmir Monitor, and Sandeep Chattoo, a local hotelier, came together to arrange 1,000 footballs.

What began as a community outreach programme garnered massive support from the local populace and it soon started evolving into something more. Real Kashmir FC, as a club, was formalised in 2016. Chattoo is currently the owner of Real Kashmir.

Real Kashmir participated in the I-League second division in the 2016-17 season but failed to get past the preliminary group stage.

However, in the 2017-18 season, the Snow Leopards finished as champions and thereby gained promotion to the I-League, then the top league in Indian football.

Real Kashmir FC had earned the honours of being the first club from Kashmir to play in the top tier of Indian football.

The Scottish influence and a BAFTA

Key to Real Kashmir FC’s historic promotion and their accomplishments since has been Scottish coach David Robertson.

A rugged hard-tackling defender during his playing days, the former Scottish international was a six-time Scottish Premier Division champion with Rangers and a Scottish League Cup winner with Aberdeen.

Robertson also played in the English top tiers for Leeds United from 1997 to 2001.

David Robertson, the current coach of Real Kashmir, here playing for Rangers in the Scottish Premier League in 1997.

Since arriving at the club in January 2017, Robertson moulded the club in his own ‘no compromises’ image making them fierce competitors on the pitch.

Largely comprising local Kashmiri talents and a handful of foreigners, including the coach’s son Mason Robertson, Real Kashmir FC emerged as a force in Indian football despite their limited budget – a perfect mirror to Kashmir’s very own fighting spirit.

After leading them to the historic promotion, Robertson coached the club to a third-place finish in their debut I-League season – finishing only six points behind champions Chennai City FC. Their three losses in the season was the joint lowest along with the champions that season.

Real Kashmir’s passionate home support, despite the region’s tumultuous conditions off the pitch, was a big highlight of the season.

In the 2019-20 I-League campaign, which was cut short due to COVID-19 outbreak, Real Kashmir FC were fourth on the table with 22 points from 15 matches. 

While Kolkata giants Mohun Bagan were runaway winners with 39 points from 16, second and third-placed East Bengal and Minerva Punjab FC had one point more than Real Kashmir having played a match more.

Real Kashmir FC also garnered global fame after BBC Scotland’s documentary titled Return to Real Kashmir FC won the prestigious British Academy of Film and Television Awards (BAFTA) Scotland Awards 2019.

The hour-long documentary followed David Robertson’s journey with Real Kashmir FC.

IFA Shield 2020 victory

On 19 December, 2020, Real Kashmir FC added another golden chapter in their short yet eventful history by winning the 123rd edition of the IFA Shield tournament.

Started in 1893, the IFA Shield is India’s second oldest tournament after the Durand Cup and holds a place of significance in Indian footballing history, despite losing some of its sheen from the yore.

Drawn in Group B with Aryan and Peerless, the Snow Leopards stormed into the knockout stages with two wins from two. In the quarter-finals, they beat Southern Samity 1-0 before getting the better of Kolkata legacy club Mohammedan Sporting SC 4-0 in the semi-final.

Robertson’s men saw off George Telegraph 2-1 in the final to win the title – their first major honour on the national stage.

Real Kashmir’s Nigerian forward Lukman Adefemi top-scored in the tournament with five goals while Mason Robertson and local Kashmiri boy Danish Farooq chipped in with a goal each.

Farooq is one of the several local Kashmir-born players who have formed the backbone of the Real Kashmir side. Farhan Ganie is another name making waves in Indian football.

Barring its first team, Real Kashmir FC are also heavily involved in the grassroots football development in Kashmir and boasts a robust academy with active U-19, U-15, U-13 and U-9 teams.

The club also runs a Women’s Development Programme named She Power Programme in collaboration with Delhi Public School (DPS) Srinagar for U-14 and U-10 girls teams.

Coming from where they come from, Real Kashmir FC have emerged as more than a football club. The Snow Leopards represent the spirit of Kashmir – ready to soar overcoming the toughest of obstacles.

Lead photo: Real Kashmir FC/Twitter