Against The Odds, A Pro Soccer Team In Kashmir Is Close To Winning India's Top Title Real Kashmir FC is less than three years old and plays soccer in a troubled Himalayan region prone to violence, strikes and heavy snow. Soldiers with machine guns patrol the home stadium.
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Against The Odds, A Pro Soccer Team In Kashmir Is Close To Winning India's Top Title

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Against The Odds, A Pro Soccer Team In Kashmir Is Close To Winning India's Top Title

Against The Odds, A Pro Soccer Team In Kashmir Is Close To Winning India's Top Title

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Now, you've probably heard of Real Madrid, the soccer team from Spain. But how about Real Kashmir? It's a relatively new soccer team from Indian-administered Kashmir, part of a disputed region between India, Pakistan and China. The area is known more for conflict than soccer. But this underdog team is battling for India's top soccer title this year. NPR's Lauren Frayer is in Kashmir.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: This Himalayan valley has hosted three wars between India and Pakistan and a decades-long separatist insurgency that Indian forces have often dealt with violently. It's part of Hindu-majority India's only Muslim-majority state. And there's tension. But it was a different type of tragedy in 2014 that gave birth to Real Kashmir.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Heavy rain and flooding have hampered the efforts to retrieve the bodies...

FRAYER: Hundreds of people were killed in floods. Schools were closed, young people out on the streets. And one evening, two friends, a Muslim and a Hindu, had an idea.

SHAMIM MERAJ: It started with the 2014 floods, you know? We used to go for evening walks. And we would see a lot of kids hanging around doing nothing. And I had been a footballer myself. That's when I thought, you know, why don't I get some balls and at least give these kids something to do?

FRAYER: That's Shamim Meraj. He and his Hindu friend Sandeep Chattoo handed out a thousand soccer balls to flood victims. But why stop there? They started a team for those idle youth to play on. It went professional. And they convinced a Scottish coach, David Robertson, to come all the way to the Himalayas.

DAVID ROBERTSON: All I ever saw was TV shows that - it's 90 degrees. It's hot in India. And I arrived here. Then the next day, it was snowing. There was no Internet. Electric was out. And I just thought I wanted to go home.

FRAYER: But Robertson stayed. And a year later, he coached Real Kashmir to win India's second division, the soccer equivalent of the minor leagues. This year, his team is tantalizingly close to winning the top division. Sumedh Bilgi is an Indian sports journalist who's watched this improbable rise of a 2 1/2-year-old team, which has 1/10 of the budget of some of its competitors.

SUMEDH BILGI: Ultimately, money rules the world. But you always want your fairy tale, don't you? You're always rooting for the underdog. I think Kashmir are that.

FRAYER: Part of the fairy tale is who's on the team - a mix of players from Africa, other parts of India - Hindus, Muslims, Christians, atheists and local Kashmiris.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in foreign language).

FRAYER: Down a warren of lanes sprayed with militant graffiti is where the team's center-back, Muhammad Hammad, lives with his parents. He often has to circumvent police curfews to attend morning practice.

MUHAMMAD HAMMAD: Well, the practice is at, like, 11. I have to leave at 8 or 7 like this because after 7 or 8, there will be curfew around the city. And you are not able to move around.

FRAYER: Does it make you more determined?

HAMMAD: Yeah. Exactly. The conditions here - you get much more motivation to achieve something because I have struggled a lot. These things also motivate you.

FRAYER: Motivate him to go out and play soccer in the Himalayas.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE BLOWING)

FRAYER: It's freezing sleet. Big, fat snowflakes are falling onto the soccer field. And the fans are all huddled under this big Real Kashmir tarp, screaming.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Cheering).

FRAYER: At a home game, the drenched stands are packed. Schoolgirls in headscarves swoon. Men climb to the roof of a neighboring mosque to peer down into the stadium. Some of the opposing team from tropical Southern India have never seen snow.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in foreign language).

FRAYER: Real Kashmir scored the winning goal in the 51st minute.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: (Foreign language spoken) Goal.

FRAYER: And as Real Kashmir moves one game closer to the Indian title, the crowd, as if they hadn't gone wild already...

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Cheering).

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Real Kashmir F.C. - one, Gokulam Kerala - zero.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Cheering).

FRAYER: Lauren Frayer, NPR News in Srinagar, Kashmir.

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