ACE FOOTBALLER ISHFAQ AHMED MENTORS YOUNGSTERS AT STATE FOOTBALL ACADEMY
Q: Where are you from and tell us about your childhood?
A: I belong to the Barbar Shah area of Srinagar. I was fortunate enough that there were a couple of grounds nearby and Barbar Shah is known as a hub of sports. The residents play cricket, table tennis, all kinds of sports, especially football. My next-door neighbours were former international football players; one of them is Syed, the other one is Zahoor and Farooq sahib. I did not need to find role models as they were my neighbours. Life was a bit rough at that time because it was the nineties. There were no mobile phones at that time so the time I was out playing was a very worrisome time for my parents. But because of hartals, we used to get a lot of time to play football. I come from a family of mostly school teachers and lecturers so it was a bit difficult for me. From my fatherâ€™s side, we are mostly teachers and from my motherâ€™s side we are mostly doctors, so it was a bit difficult to pursue sports and to give that confidence to my parents that I can do something in this field. But there were sports genes in the family. My dad had played sports so had my grandfather but none of them had played at the highest levels. Dad was a BSNL employee. Life was difficult but not that bad. Income was limited. By the end of the month, everything was tight and if something was needed it was never the right time and you had to manage with what you got. Although there were hardships, there was belief as well that these struggles are not permanent, and we can change them. There was always a dream of doing something in sports. I was not into one sport. I would play multiple sports. I played club-level cricket also. I was interested in sports because it gave me pleasure as there was nothing in Kashmir in terms of entertainment. Then you also had hartals, curfews and crackdowns which were very common those days. You did not know if you had planned a training session whether that was going to be possible, whether you will find yourself in a crackdown or a curfew. But it never bothered me. There used to be Mohalla teams, I represented Barbar Shah and there were other Mohalla teams like Nowpora. That is how it started. That was my early childhood where we used to find happiness in small moments when we used to go to play in SP College ground in the evenings.
Q: What made you choose football?
A: There was a time in my life where I used to play serious football and cricket both at club level. I used to feel that I was utilizing an entire day in cricket (such is the nature of the game) and felt I was not doing anything else. I realized football is my first love and it gives me more satisfaction than any other sport, even in defeat. I think it was around when I was in 10th standard when I got offers from the departmental football teams and I was aware of the financial situation at home. I thought this is the best way to support my family also. Necessity became a dream kind of thing. I got my first offer from J&K Bank in 1999 but since I was not 18 years old, they could not offer me the job in the bank. Finally, when I was 18 years old, I got the player-job offer from JK Police and in my first year only I got two promotions also. Then there was the announcement that J&K was hosting the North Zone Football Championship, which was a turning point in my life. J&K was hosting, and I was the captain of the team and we won the North Zone Football Championship. It was the first time J&K had done that. Also, I became the first player from J&K to win national level Player of the Tournament. It changed everything. I got many offers from professional football clubs from all over India afterwards.Â
There were struggles in between. For example in winters, there used to be no training camps in Kashmir. One had to travel to Jammu and if you travel to Jammu you needed to have pocket money and it was difficult given the financial state of my family. Sometimes I only had one shoe for the whole season. Things like these never put me down. They always made me stronger. I became more determined to achieve something. Finally, when I got offers from clubs, I picked HAL (Hindustan Aeronautics Limited) along with another player from Kashmir, Mehraj-ud-Din Wadoo. I performed well and I got a call from the national team for Olympic Qualifiers, and I scored in my debut against Turkmenistan, and we won. Till then I was not sure. We Kashmiris get homesick and playing in 30â€“40 degree heat is not easy for us. But thankfully two of us were together - Mehraj and myself. This held us together. We supported each other and it worked for us. I think it was from Allah. I had never planned for anything. Everything came from Allah and I am thankful for that. I continued to get offers. I went to Dempo. which was one of the best teams in the country at that time and won a couple of national championships with them and got the opportunity to play Asiaâ€™s club championship with them and continued to represent the national team against various countries all over Asia. Then I got the call for FIFA World Cup Qualifiers, where I did not play but I was in the team.
In between all this, there were injuries. An injury is the worst thing to happen to a footballer. During an injury, it is you and only you, no one is with you. But during times, my familyâ€™s support was invaluable. Hats off to my father who used to work extra time and my Mom, who is the strongest woman I know, and my siblings. They all did their part. Not just my parents and siblings but other family members like my uncles and aunts also played a huge support role in my life. I was once called up for a school India camp in Patiala and we did not have any money for that camp and one of my aunts, who is sadly no more, came to our house and offered her gold ring to sell and to help send me to camp. My success is not my alone. It belongs to many people.
Q: How was your first experience playing international football?
A: It is beyond words, a dream come true, and it is something which you cannot describe. It's happiness and itâ€™s a relief. It is a bag of mixed feelings.
Q: What, according to you, is a key requirement of becoming a good footballer?
A: It is not just in football but any other sport or for that matter anything in life, its dedication and hard work. There is no substitute for these qualities. Nobody can do hard work on behalf of you it has to be you in the ground early morning, be on time, be all ears to coachesâ€™ instructions follow them and do the hard work every day. And when you are a child, the support of your parents is extremely important.Â
Q: You have become an inspiration for youngsters, how do you feel about that?
A: It is a good feeling but at the same time I would want people to know what I have done to achieve all this, so they come to know about my journey, and they do the same hard work to be successful in their lives and their respective careers. So, it is a great feeling, but I am hopeful the people know that it is not only me they can do it as well if they work hard enough.Â
Q: Since the days you were playing and now, has the standard of football gone up or down?
A: There have been a lot of setbacks. For instance, the departmental teams have been closed. There is no recruitment happening for departmental teams. I would say there is growth but not fast enough growth. One of the major reasons is due to the lack of a sports policy and no recruitment for the departmental teams.
Q: How can we make football a household game as it is in other parts of the world?
A: I think football is the most loved game in Kashmir. The only thing missing is that if this recruitment starts again in departmental teams and if the government can make a better sports policy and revive traditional teams like SRTC, Forest, etc. The more teams, the more players will be recruited. And the more families get involved, the bigger pool of society will get involved. These traditional teams will have their respective football academies where kids will get coached, and I think that is the way forward to popularize the game and to have good future footballers from Kashmir.
Q: How can one know what to do exactly if they want to excel in this field?
A: First of all, parents must be knowledgeable about a sport or any sport, not just football. They can go to the Sports Council Office and find out about registered sports. Then if it is about football, one has to see if the child has the talent and if the child is going to a football academy. There are a lot of academies now like State Football Academy which belongs to the Sports Council wherein if a kid is good enough, they will take them in and provide them with modern training methods and they will be pursuing their studies as well. The academies take great care with kids so that their studies are not hampered, and they also teach values to the kids so that even if you end up not becoming a footballer you will end up becoming a good human being. Football teaches you how to handle failures and also how to handle success.
Q: How many academies do we have in Kashmir?
A: We have J&K Bank academy and State Football Academy. These are the two major academies. We have Real Kashmir Football Club, which is private, but they also have a good academy. These are the three major academies.
Q: Are people or corporates showing any interest in these academies, so that more academies be set up in Kashmir?
A: I am not sure. I have heard in passing that there is a lot of interest in football from business houses but not many have come forward. There are private teams (Real Kashmir, Lonestar) who are doing their part and then there is J&K Bank Academy which is very good and the best one is State Football Academy.
Q: How many grounds do we have here especially for football?
A: There are many grounds but as of now the only playable ground is the TRC Synthetic Turf Ground. The rest of the grounds like Bakshi Stadium are under construction and others like Polo Ground, Gani Memorial Stadium or Eidgah ground are not good for playing football.
Q: What is the happiest moment of your career?
A: Scoring on my international debut in a pre-Olympic match.
Q: What about the most embarrassing moment?
A: When you are young, you want to play every match and I was no different. I was not fully fit, and I told my coach I am fit, so I was limping while playing. It was both embarrassing and funny at the same time.
Q: Any crazy fan moment?
A: I remember when I was young and playing in Kashmir. At Eidgah I was playing a local tournament, I was 16 at that time and I scored a hattrick in that match and I was about to go home when an old guy wearing a traditional Kashmiri pheran came to me and gave me Rs 50 and I was surprised. He told me to go and have a good refreshment. That was a very touching moment for me.
Q: What are you up to these days?
A: I am into coaching now and I teach/coach under-15s and under-18s at State Football Academy. I try to pass on my knowledge to the young kids and young coaches wherein I help them to learn and understand the game.Â
I have also been a former head coach for Kerala Blasters in Indian Super League.
Q: What are your future plans?
A: To contribute in my field as much as I can and to go for higher studies in coaching. I have already done the A-License, I may pursue Pro-License as well and contribute to my society.
Q: Lastly, what is your message for aspiring footballers?
A: Enjoy the game and do not do it just because others are doing it. If you are enjoying it and have a love for the game, then do it. If you have passion for the game, then you are on the right track and hard work has no substitute.