Variety

Chak de! Kashmir

Haroon Mirani | Updated on: Sep 22, 2011
lf23_cover1.jpg

lf23_cover1.jpg

lf23_cover3.jpg

lf23_cover3.jpg

An Argentinian coaches the Valley to find its feet and return to its long-dormant love for football.

In the strife-torn Kashmir valley, where the local youth have few opportunities for entertainment and limited scope for sports, many youngsters are seizing the opportunity to shake a leg, not at the disco, but on the football field.

Kashmir is seeing a strong resurgence of interest in football, which is giving even the State's cricket craze a run for its money. The unlikely hero who has revived the long-dormant sport in the Valley is an Argentinian coach, Juan Marcos Troia.

Marcos, 34, a FIFA-certified coach, first came to Kashmir in 2007 and has since made it his second home.

Moving to India in 2002, he initially tried coaching youngsters in New Delhi but that proved to be tough. “Delhi youth don't have interest in football,” he says, adding that he was even unable to set up a football club there.

While he was looking around for another city to move to, he happened to meet some Kashmiri youth in the Jamia Nagar area where he was living. “Soon I learnt about the football passion in Kashmir and, after a visit there in 2006, I shifted to Kashmir,” says Marcos, adding that he had turned down an official invitation from Bihar and Jharkhand.

Marcos, whose speciality is under-17 coaching, managed to generate quite a buzz in Kashmir even before he arrived. Around 300 youngsters vied to register with the local football association when they heard of Marcos's planned move to Kashmir.

Ideal local conditions

He believes there are several factors favouring the growth and spread of football among Kashmiris. “Temperate weather, well-built race, enhanced stamina due to high altitude and their traditional diet comprising mutton and vegetables are ideal in the making of a professional footballer,” says Marcos, who recalls that back in Delhi he was forced to halt coaching for extended periods due to the extreme weather.

But the most important factor of them all is the Valley's love for the game. “People are crazy about football. Some youth come from as far as 100 km away to watch a match or for coaching,” he says. “In the rest of India cricket has overshadowed every other sport, which is not the case here.”

Within just four years, the football team built by him has galloped to the Super Division league. “In 2007 I set up the Academy (International Sports Academy Trust), in 2008 my team participated in the big edition club, in 2009 it participated in the J&K Football official league championship, and in 2010 it entered Super Division league in Kashmir,” he beams with pride. He has coached over 1,000 youngsters, and ten times as many aspirants had to be turned away as the academy was filled to capacity.

“This year we are going for Professional league,” says Marcos, before adding his favourite phrase Inshallah (meaning ‘God willing' in Arabic), which he has picked up from the locals.

International exposure

Last year, for the first time, three Kashmiri players from his academy were selected to train and play at professional clubs in Brazil as part of an exchange programme. Two of the selected players recently returned after being trained by Fernando Guisini Neto, a former member of the Brazilian national team who also played for the Santos Football Club with Pele.

Ironically, the third player, who was also the team captain, missed out on the opportunity as the government refused to issue him a passport, citing his father's militancy past. After intervention from the Chief Minister, the player — Basharat Baba — got his passport, but by then it was too late. This unfortunate episode later became the subject of Oscar-nominated filmmaker Ashvin Kumar's latest documentary, Inshallah Football .

Ahead of their travel to Brazil, the selected players were familiarised with Latin American culture and they learnt to speak Portuguese with the help of Marcos's wife, Priscilla.

Marcos's family now lives in Kashmir and his three daughters attend a school in Srinagar.

Training in a conflict zone

Of course, alongside all these achievements there have also been moments of struggle. “These are the side effects of living in a conflict zone,” explains Marcos, who finds himself constantly under security scrutiny and subjected to periodic background checks.

The shutdowns and curfews during the Valley's summer of unrest over the past three years have also badly affected the academy's functioning. “Last year was the worst, as after May, there was literally no practice till October,” he recalls. “But despite the limited time, we utilise it as best as possible.”

In 2009, Marcos was asked to leave Kashmir after the Union Home Ministry refused to extend his visa. It was only after widespread campaigns and intervention by the State Government that his visa was finally extended.

The following year, Kashmir received four Brazilian football players, who were scheduled to stay here for a year. But two of them left midway as protests and violence erupted in Kashmir. “It was sad, but we couldn't do anything,” says Marcos with regret.

Even some of his students were arrested and he had to personally intervene to get them released.

Acceptance and… some suspicion

Marcos thinks the locals have accepted him readily because he looks like a Kashmiri. “Even today many people start talking with me in Kashmiri, thinking I'm a Kashmiri,” he laughs.

He says that some years ago he was even beaten up for failing to speak in Hindi while visiting a telecom office. The incident had created a furore in the media.

Recently, Marcos was in the news again after he received several threatening calls. The police later discovered that it was the work of a rival football club.

Some people have also accused him of being a Christian missionary in the garb of a coach. “I am a very religious person, but I don't go to Church here as I don't want to strengthen the accusations of my detractors,” he says. “I and my family pray only at home.”

So, how does he manage to provide such world-class football coaching facility to Kashmiris, that too free of cost. Marcos says the entire project is funded by individual sponsors in Brazil.

“There are many people who work for the spread of football and they are always eager to help me,” he says. “I submitted to them the project of reviving football in Kashmir and they accepted it.”

Of course, not everything is hunky-dory though and Marcos points to the shortage of infrastructure that is hampering his work. “We don't have a dedicated field for practice.”

But his work has already earned him widespread fame and recognition, and not a day passes without invitations from major clubs or other States to work in those places.

“From Kerala to Punjab, everywhere I am getting official invitations,” says the coach.

“They guarantee every facility, in case I leave Kashmir.”

But Marcos is not about to leave Kashmir anytime soon. “I have managed to pull through, come what may. I will achieve what I have come here for… and the people are with me,” he says, dedication ringing in his voice.

Published on September 22, 2011
COMMENTS
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

You May Also Like

Recommended for you