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Play it like Sopore: ‘Night cup’ brings local football fever back to the Apple Town

After giving Kashmir prominent football players who would keep the spectators on the edge of their seats, Sopore’s soccer spectacle returned this fall with the ‘first night cup’. Amid the persistent official indifference, the locals have taken it upon themselves to recreate the sports aura.

Well before the tense-faced Mudasir of Bab Raza Football Club would score a match-winning goal against Sopore Legends to help his team lift the ‘first night cup’ in Sopore lately, the Apple Town was under the grip of football fever.

The town still takes pride on its football past when some football players would rock the playfields with spectacular performances.

But the sports facet of life was replaced by the recurring arsons and sprawling cemeteries in the town with the early 90’s showdown — when the town had become a fiery centre of resistance.

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Amid the rising rebellion and turmoil, many tried to recreate the sports aura — but the trend wouldn’t pick, until the impasse ended on September 2 this year, when the “First Night Cup” football tournament was kick-started at Sopore’s Charai Ground. 

The tournament created a small, yet significant, change in the town — where markets would usually close immediately after dusk. With the return of the soccer spectacle, the ensued fanfare and festivity uplifted the pervasive night hush.

The ground is located in a vast area spread over thousands of kanals of land, locally called Charai. In addition to cattle grazing, a small piece of land is used by locals for playing different games, mostly football and cricket.  

“We felt that the local football is not inviting much attention as it used to in past,” says Owais Masoodi, who organized the football tournament along with United Football Club. “So, the idea was to boost the game, both among the participants as well as spectators.”

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But it was never a walk in the park for Owais, and his co-organizers. 

Since the ‘night cup’ concept was new, Kashmir’s situational-hit market didn’t open up. Even the well-known financial institutions didn’t yield, except J&K Bank. “The bank provided us some help by sponsoring prizes, rest no one showed any positive response,” Owais says, hoping to generate a ‘good’ response next year.

While the tournament replaced the graveyard silence of the ground with cheers and chants, Sopore’s soccer players assert: more needs to be done for uplifting the graph of the game.

“Youth in Sopore are full of talent which if groomed can excel tremendously,” believes Shakir Budha, a young footballer. “But unfortunately the football association never played its positive part in it. How many tournaments under District Football Association were started and concluded? They always give excuses of Ramadan, cold weather, etc. Then they say it’ll be held on next year. Similarly it continues.”

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But as the night football spread some activity in town, the sports enthusiasts say the game needs a collective local effort, without any influence and intervention, for reviving its bygone glory. 

As of now, however, the elusive official backing is playing spoilsport. 

“The problem is that District Football Association is defunct since many months,” says Sheikh Basharat, a senior member of J&K Football Association. “Some people who’ve no relation with football have put a court stay on the election due to which whole of the district Baramulla is suffering.” 

As a chief guest in the final of the ‘night cup’, Basharat patted the back of the organizers, who did it on their own, after being “snubbed by J&K Football Association”.

Sopore has been a hub of football since many decades. A local legend has it that Muhammad Subhan Janwari who died couple of years back was the first footballer from Jammu and Kashmir who brought a football shoe for himself. People of Sopore consider him the “father of football”.

Then, the townspeople say, there would be so much football festivity that the spectators would watch matches from rooftops of a college building and its water tank.

“Playing football was a matter of prestige and public passion,” a senior footballer says. “With time, however, the game was overtaken by dirty politics of conflict management—which ruined it.”

Without letting that “dirty politics” dampen their sports spirit, the local clubs organised six tournaments this year. 

“Soccer in Sopore is alive because of the efforts of the local clubs,” Basharat says. “Neither Sports Council nor J&K Football Association ever bothered to play their role to revive the local football ground which has been in a dilapidated condition for the last 20 years.”

Despite these odds, the return of the game under floodlights is expected to instill the lost passion that would once keep Sopore on its toes.

 

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