The crowd at Bakshi Stadium in Srinagar on Friday. Picture by Imran Nissar
Srinagar, Sept. 8: Mohun Bagan today thrashed Jammu and Kashmir 4-0 in a friendly but Mushtaq Ahmad bore the Bengal club no grudges.
Instead, the 58-year-old football fan from Srinagar’s Habba Kadal locality thanked the city of Calcutta for bringing back memories of the good old days when a soccer-loving Valley often hosted top Indian teams.
“I would certainly have loved to see Jammu and Kashmir win the match, but victory and defeat are a part of the game. This match reminded me of the days the Valley was a football-crazy place,” said Ahmad, one of about 30,000 fans who packed the Bakshi Stadium.
Bagan was playing in Kashmir for the first time since the outbreak of militancy more than two decades ago. Two months ago, Mohammedan Sporting, another leading Calcutta club, had played in Srinagar.
Both teams attracted huge crowds: probably the largest at any Kashmir football ground since the late 1980s.
Such gatherings can trigger pro-independence protests and the government had made tight security arrangements. A police officer said it was a relief that the matches went off peacefully.
The last time the Valley had hosted the two clubs — and other top Indian teams including Calcutta giant East Bengal — was in 1986 when the Federation Cup was played in the state.
“I thank Calcutta for bringing our old memories back. Matches like these will provide exposure to our boys and our team will emerge stronger,” Ahmad said.
There was a twinge of disappointment before the start, though, for local fans who had hoped to see Mehrajuddin Wadoo and Ishfaq Ahmed, two star footballers from the state, turn out for the home team. They couldn’t because their clubs wouldn’t let them.
Mehraj, a Mohun Bagan footballer, played against his state team. Ishfaq is an East Bengal player.
Srinagar resident Abdul Rasheed Guru said football had been Kashmir’s first love till the 1980s before it was overtaken by cricket, partly because of the top Indian soccer clubs’ reluctance to visit the Valley.
“In the old days, football fans would prepare for days in advance to watch big matches. It seems this is happening again,” Guru said.
The game has witnessed a revival here with the gradual return of peace in recent years. In 2008, the Valley received a shot in the arm when it hosted the Santosh Trophy after a 30-year break. Many leading Indian soccer clubs are scheduled to play here next month in the All India J&K Bank Gold Cup.
State football association chief Zamir Ahmad Thakur said the visits by Bagan and Mohammedan were a big success for the Valley.
“We are grateful to these two clubs for accepting our invitation. It was actually a demand of the people of Kashmir to see these Bengal teams play here,” he said.
Today’s match was a treat to watch. The local team appeared to dominate during the first 15 minutes before the visitors tightened their grip.