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Photo: Furkan Latif Khan/NPR
In wartorn Kashmir, there are Muslims and Hindus who who would rather play soccer than spend their lives fighting. Above, loyal Snow Leopards fans watch a game.

In every part of the world, no matter how troubled, there are always people who would rather play ball.

I have to blame the British colonial empire for leaving behind the seeds of war everywhere it went, chopping up countries without attention to the needs of the people living there. But thank goodness that human nature and the love of peace is strong! There are always some folks who have no interest in fighting.

Kashmir, created by Partition as the British left India, is an example of what I mean. Today, because of the way the country was divided, Kashmir knows constant war between Hindus and Muslims. Despite that, two friends, one Hindu and one Muslim, started something beautiful.

Lauren Frayer writes at National Public Radio (NPR), “They play soccer in a disputed Himalayan valley prone to car bombs, strikes and heavy snow. Soldiers with machine guns patrol their home stadium. Players sometimes have to arrive at practice three hours early to avoid police curfews. Their team is less than three years old, with a budget that’s one-tenth that of some of their competitors.

“[As of February 2019], Real Kashmir Football Club, from Indian-controlled Kashmir, [was] tantalizingly close to winning India’s top professional soccer title. They’ve been flitting back and forth between first, second and third place, and the season ends in early March.

” ‘We’re the only club in India that has sold-out stadiums at almost every game,’ says the team’s co-founder Shamim Mehraj. ‘What we have done is give people some hope in a place that has actually been taken down by conflict and violence for the past 60 years. It’s helping this place heal.’ …

“A natural disaster helped give birth to this soccer team. In 2014, the Kashmir Valley suffered devastating floods. Hundreds of people were killed. Schools were closed, and young people spilled out onto the streets of Mehraj’s hometown Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir and one of the largest cities in the valley.

“One evening, Mehraj and a friend had an idea.

” ‘We used to go for evening walks. We would see a lot of kids hanging around doing nothing, and I had been a footballer myself. That’s when I thought, “Why don’t I get some balls and at least give these kids something to do?” ‘ recalls Mehraj, 38. He had played for his college team in New Delhi, and for his state in amateur soccer tournaments.

“Mehraj, who is Muslim, and his Hindu friend Sandeep Chattoo, 52, got friends and neighbors to pitch in and buy 1,000 soccer balls, which they handed out to flood victims. But why stop there? In March 2016, they started a team.

“They applied for the team to compete in India’s I-League 2nd Division — the pro soccer equivalent of baseball’s minor leagues. Mehraj and Chattoo invested their own money to pay players’ salaries. They also hired a Scottish former player, David Robertson, who had been coaching a professional soccer team in Phoenix, Arizona, to coach Real Kashmir, a.k.a. the ‘Snow Leopards.’

“Robertson had never been to India, and admits he probably couldn’t have placed Kashmir on a map.

” ‘All I ever saw was TV shows that showed it’s 90 degrees — it’s hot in India! But I arrived here and the next day, it was snowing,’ says Robertson, 50, now in his third season as Real Kashmir’s coach. ‘There was no Internet, the electricity was out, and I just thought, “I want to go home.” ‘

“Mehraj invited Robertson over to his family’s house, gave him a hot water bottle and some home-cooked Kashmiri food — and convinced him to stay. Since then, Robertson has recruited his own son, Mason Robertson, 24, to play for Real Kashmir. By the end of the 2017-2018 season, several Robertson relatives were in the stands at the team’s home stadium in Srinagar, to watch Real Kashmir win the 2nd Division title. …

“[By February, the team was] neck-and-neck with Chennai City FC and East Bengal FC for the top title in Indian professional soccer. …

” ‘I never did think we would go this far,’ Mehraj tells NPR, as he looks out over the turf at Real Kashmir’s home stadium. …

“Kashmir’s 21 percent unemployment rate triple that of the rest of India and militant groups recruit from the ranks of young, idle Kashmiri men. Soccer ‘keeps him away from that,’ says Ishfaq Hussain, 52, a former professional cricket player whose son Muhammad Hammad plays center-back for Real Kashmir. ‘He thinks always about when to play, when to practice. He’s got no time to join politics or go shouting or pelleting stones.’ …

“His teammates include fellow Kashmiris and recruits from Africa, Europe and across India — including Muslims, Hindus, Christians and atheists. Mehraj says he can’t manufacture T-shirts, stickers and banners fast enough to keep up with fans’ demand.”

More of the NPR story here. Follow the rankings here.

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