Azhar Teli passes the ball to Mehraj Ahmad. Mehraj moves it closer to the goal area. Three Iqbal Hygam FC opponents tail him. The playground is filled with cheers for Mehraj, "Go Mehraj Go!". Mehraj takes a second touch and scores a goal for Amberpora FC within 10 minutes of the first half. The 2,000-odd spectators burst into cheers, jumping, and dancing.
With the sunset in the Hygam area of North Kashmir’s Baramulla district, hundreds of young men and boys from across the region could be seen running towards a football field in the periphery of the town. They spend at least two hours at this field under floodlights. Since early June, the area has hosted the 16-team, 7-a-7 side ‘Fifa Super Cup – under lights’.
As Kashmir heads towards one year of lockdown after the abrogation of Article 370 from the Indian constitution, imposed in August last year, many have become victims of depression due to continuous violence in the state. As a respite, many football lovers in the Hygam area of North Kashmir’s Baramulla district, have taken up the initiative of organising night football for the youth.
For people in Kashmir, where life is strained by heavy troop presence and an armed insurgency, watching and playing football is more than a source of entertainment or “time pass". It offers an escape from the grinding reality of everyday life in the Valley.
The locals in the area have joined hands and contributed money from their own pockets to set-up high-voltage floodlights. Credit: Aaqib Fayaz
Kashmir’s love for football is well known. It is not uncommon to see boys and girls dribbling the ball, rather than hitting it with a bat—preferred in many parts of the country—in the nooks and crannies of the Valley. Elders share tales of how they would climb the tall chinar trees around stadiums to watch matches in the 1980s and ’90s and spend hours in harsh winters playing football.
But all these sports activities came to a halt when the Indian government, last year, scrapped Article 370 followed by a complete lockdown in the valley. Further lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year, hampered these football enthusiasts to resume the football activities.
“Since August 4, 2019, all the sports activities in the Valley have been paralysed. Also with continuous lockdown due to COVID-19, stress levels among the youth are on the rise. To ease their stress level, some ex-football players and me, took the initiative to start a night football tournament in our area” says Waheed Samad, organiser of the tournament.
Total 16 teams from different districts of Kashmir are participating in the floodlight tournament. Due to the poor conditions of the ground, the tournament is organised on the basics of 7-a-7 side rule, which allows only eleven players in a team, with seven players playing in the ground and three in substitution.
North Kashmir does not have a well-established venue for sports and arrangements for night football. Shortage of infrastructure and the security situation in the area being the reason. The government was ready to provide support, but the local football administration with whom the government works, is already under few scandals.
So the locals in the area have joined hands and contributed money from their own pockets to set-up high-voltage floodlights, on four sides of a vacant patch of land at the Shalibagh area of Hygam.
“We have installed these lights from our own pocket, also we have kept a backup power supply,” adds Waheed.
Ishfaq Ahmad, a 27-year-old football lover, mostly used to spend his time on social media since lockdown was imposed in Kashmir. But as he heard the news of the tournament in the area, he does not want to miss any of the matches. He now regularly travels two kilometers to be a part of the event.
“With nothing to do in the lockdown, I used to spend most of my time on the phone browsing social media, which had affected my eyes and also led to a rise in stress level. With the night tournament in our area, I try to be a part of it, which helps me ease the stress level”, says Ishfaq.
Hygam area is mostly surrounded by dense forests. During the late ’90s, it used to be the shelter for the Ikhwan-ul-Muslimeen (a militant organisation group sided with Indian security forces). Also one of Kashmir's famous wetlands “Rakhi-Hygam'' lies near the playground, which attracts thousands of migratory birds during the winters. Since the lockdowns were imposed, many young boys from the area, during night hours, used the playground for the drug menace, but the night tournament has also provided them the opportunity to keep themselves away from this menace.
“These initiatives will also keep the young budding talent away from the drug menace, which is on the rise in Kashmir,” says Manan Showkat, a local football player.
This is not the first time that night football is being played in the Valley. Credit: Aaqib Fayaz
Apart from relief from depression and drug menace, these football tournaments have also provided the local people with earning opportunities.
For Manzoor Ahmad Khuroo, a local Aloo Munja ( Fried potato chips ) seller, the tournament has provided him the opportunity to earn some money to feed the family. Before the lockdown, he used to cook at marriage ceremonies as a traditional chef ( Waza ). With no marriages taking place in the Valley, he now draws his cart into the ground to give spectators the taste of his food.
“I used to cook at marriage ceremonies, earning enough to feed my family, with continuous shutdown from August. I did not have enough sources to feed my children, but this tournament came as a ray of hope for me, as I earn three to four thousand Rupees every night depending upon the crowd in the ground” says Khuroo.
This is not the first time that night football is being played in the Valley. Earlier, tournaments have been played in Srinagar and Sopore town back in 2018. Since the abrogation of Article 370, all the sports activities were on freeze in Kashmir, but with little restrictions in the lockdown, many sports lovers have restarted the sports activities across the valley, with social distancing in mind.
Qayoom Jehangar, a local sports journalist, seems to have a busy schedule uploading different sports activities across the valley on the local sports channel “sports hub”, which he maintains on Facebook and YouTube. Although his attempts to broadcast the match to a larger audience through Facebook Live gets hampered by the slow internet connection.
“For the last fifteen minutes, I've been trying to go live on Facebook, which I usually do whenever a match is going on, but today it seems that I have to put my phone in my pocket and enjoy the game, as slow internet in the area is not going to help,” says Jehangar with a smile.
“Slow internet has also affected sports activities. Usually in Kashmir, all the sports-related activities are updated on Facebook, but slow internet has paralysed it” adds Jehanger.
Preparations could be seen in full swing in the Handwara area of North Kashmir, where some football enthusiasts are also going to organise night football in the area next month. The area is 45kms from Hygam and lies near the line of control ( LOC ).
“We are going to organise a 32-team night tournament in the area in the next month. Our main motive is to keep the youth busy in sports activities, who have gone through deep stress in their lives due to violence in the past”, says an organiser, who wishes not to be named.
The match ended with Amberpora FC defeating Hygam Iqbal FC, 2-0.
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