New Delhi: Real Kashmir FC defender Muhammad Hammad has a custom that he follows before every game. "I always talk to my mom and ask her to pray for me." But when his team played its first game of the Durand Cup against Chennai City FC, Hammad had no way to contact his mother.
The match was played in Kolkata on August 7, a day after the Parliament passed the bill repealing Jammu and Kashmir's special status after a severe clampdown was imposed in the Kashmir Valley.
Hammad and the other Kashmiri players had no contact with their families and their professional commitments tied them to Kolkata. Yet the show went on.
The team played I-League champions Chennai City FC and registered a 1-0 win as the team's star forward and local boy Danish Farooq scored the decisive goal.
"We won our first game at the Durand Cup but all us Kashmiri boys got very emotional. The fact that I couldn't speak to my mother before the match made me very sentimental," Hammad said on Tuesday even as the crippling lockdown in the Valley has now lasted 100 days.
He revealed that the team members could not speak to their families for 10 days. "As a team, we stuck together and helped each other cope with the feelings. Everyone was there for the other. But as professionals, we had to focus on the game and that's what we did," Hammad said on the sidelines of the team's jersey launch in the capital along with its partner, sportswear giant Adidas.
While the postpaid mobile services in the Valley were only restored on October 14, 72 days after the restrictions were imposed, the team's co-owner Sandeep Chattoo arranged for the players to speak to their families. The shutdown of internet and prepaid mobile services still persists.
To help out his team members, Chattoo got a phone activated with "special permission", which was the only way the players could contact their families in India and abroad.
"Sometimes the phone would ring at 3 o'clock in the morning, calls would come from Zimbabwe, England and Nigeria," Chattoo told PTI.
Real Kashmir coach David Robertson, who is now in his third season with the club, acknowledged that Kashmir was a difficult place to begin with but added that he has grown extremely fond of the place and has a tight-knit squad with him.
"It's difficult to be at Real Kashmir because there are various hurdles to overcome. For foreign players and staff, we're trying to communicate home. The Kashmiris were in a tough spot not being able to contact their families. We are all just there in need for each other, that was the time for Kashmiris with them not being able to speak at home but we tried to keep a nice atmosphere. We all help each other through hard times," Robertson, who is from Scotland, said.
"I have an emotional attachment to this club and this place, it's like a second home. I know there will be a time when I'll either be sacked or move on but while I'm here, I just enjoy the experience," he told News18.com.
It weren't just the Kashmiris who were affected by the lockdown. With the communication and internet lines still not fully open, Real Kashmir's new signing Kallum Higginbotham also has had to find a way around to keep in touch with his family.
The team has been in Kashmir for the past one month and it is through the landline at their hotel that Kallum is able to speak to his family back in England.
"Due to the communication lockdown, it has been tough to get in touch with my family. Since there is no internet, we can't FaceTime. There is one landline at the hotel that we use to speak.
"We are a close group so we help each other stay positive. I have played in England as well but this is the best camaraderie I have experienced within a team," Kallum said.
On being asked why he chose to join Real Kashmir, Kallum said he spoke to Robertson and that made him go ahead and sign for the I-League club. Robertson said he told Kallum of all the positives and the pitfalls of the place after which he chose to join.
"I told him it takes twice as long as anywhere else to reach places and you have to be patient. What helped was knowing I was here, my son was here. He has loved it ever since," Robertson explained.