Kashmir’s only synthetic turf at TRC ground, Srinagar was bathed in an out-of- season January afternoon sunshine. It was chock-a-lock. Football was the magnet. All and sundry were hooked up — no half-measures. The crowd was at its boisterous best. It was always going to root for only one team — the home team. The scenes took soccer nerds to the days of yore: ‘70s and ‘80s. The game was sparking off new excitement among the fans. A volley here, a dribble there, a header here, a tackle there — the crowd was lapping up some thrilling top flight football.
A clearly partisan crowd was egging on the home club: Lone Star Kashmir Football Club (LSKFC) — the club that is charting out a new future for football in Kashmir.
LSKFC is the first professionally-managed club in Kashmir to take part in the I-League-premier fixture in India’s domestic calendar. And, it was on LSKFC’s insistence that All India Football Federation, AIFF, custodians of the sport in India, fixtured TRC ground as a venue for three LSKFC games. Football fans responded to it wholeheartedly. All three games saw a packed out ground.
Already LSKFC has managed a strong fan base. That was on show in the game against Kenkere. When the visitors went 1-0 up, an otherwise noisy crowd suddenly fell silent. Every goal opportunity missed by the LSKFC drew oohs and aahs from the crowd. When LSKFC scored the equalizer, the crowd erupted again. Along with some top notch football from the LSKFC players on the field, hard work of the management of the club was also on show.
LSKFC’s unprecedented journey wouldn’t have been possible without their owner’s support and keenness to work for the growth of the sport.
The club’s owner Iftikhar Ahmad Lone’s foray into the football wasn’t sudden or accidental. He wanted to invest in cricket after his return to Kashmir having spent the prime of his youth in the Middle East with telling success. With cricket already having many corporate promoters, Lone switched his interest to football. “And this is where I am staying for the greater good of aspiring Kashmiri footballers,” says Lone.
He isn’t new to the sport, though.
“I have played the game during my school and college days. Even during my days in Middle East I played at the amateur level.”
When Lone returned to Kashmir, he thought of doing something for the sport. “I realised that a lot was needed for growth of the game,” says Lone.
Lone teamed up with Nazir Ahmad Khan – an ace footballer of yesteryear’s. Khan egged him on and urged him to launch a professional football club. Soon the LSKFC was born.
“We discussed how we can help the sport grow in the state and it was decided we needed a professional club here,” recalls Lone. Within a couple of years, the hard work of Lone and Khan began to show results. “Today LSKFC has become a brand name and we are happy it has helped develop a culture of competitive football in the Valley,” says Lone.
Later LSKFC roped in Hilal Rasool Parray as a coach, and as things progressed more and more players from the state were drafted in.
LSKFC’s maiden participation in State Championship 2014 saw them finish as runners-up. Then came the historic jump. The club fielded an under-19 team in the I-League. The club seemed to be on a roll. It became the first Kashmir-based club to make it to the second division of the I-League.
“It was really a proud moment for all of us: all of Kashmir, all of J&K. We were part of history, becoming the first team ever from the state to take part in the I-League,” says Lone. The club didn’t field many players from Kashmir in the 2014-15 season, but, Lone adds, “Did okay in our maiden appearance to announce our arrival at a big stage.”
From there on, the club hasn’t looked back. It drafted more and more players from the Valley as its fan base swelled.
“Now we have almost all the members from the J&K. We are happy how things have shaped up thus far.” Lone is particularly elated about the crowd support. “We have been embraced warmly by the fans. The buzz around the three matches at TRC ground was amazing. It means we are doing something right for football in Kashmir.”
LSKFC have been doing quite well this season, sitting pretty at top in their group at the end of January. Lone and his team know quite well though there is no sitting back. “More needs to be done to help the sport grow,” says Lone.
Lone also realizes it is just the beginning of a long journey.“We know the process has just started. Natural turfs need to be maintained.” Lone has also chalked up a few plans. “We need to get the best physios and trainers to keep our players ultra fit. We are mulling to set up an academy and train players at grassroots level.”
Lone has already ‘adopted’ two educational institutions to promote the sport: SP Higher Secondary and MET Barzulla.
“We will provide kits, refreshments and maintain their grounds on our own. We are also thinking of taking the game
I realized a lot needed to be done for the growth of the game. So we decided to set up a professional club —Iftikhar Ahmad Lone, LSKFC owner to the rural areas,” says Lone about his future endeavours.
The football bug seems to have bitten the entire Lone family. Zubaida Yousuf, wife of Lone, was never a football fan, but thanks to LSKFC she has become passionate about the sport and follows the club’s activities keenly. “LSKFC has become a vital part of our lives. It seems we are living a dream,” says Zubaida. She hopes LSKFC will give Kashmir an “identity” in the sport.
The way things are going for LSKFC and the hard work its management is putting in, Zubaida’s hope seems a safe bet.