Fresh air. Those two hope-filled words evoke the notion of a ‘better place’. A place where all your troubles can be left behind and a momentary breath can de-stress and revitalise. A walk through a leafy Surrey suburb. A stroll across the Yorkshire Dales on a cold winter’s morning. Perhaps a walk along the beach at Porthcurno.

Try Kashmir. Try the foothills of the Himalayas. While the air is pure, the same can’t be said about the politics. Since the partition between India and Pakistan in 1947 the region has been disputed and claimed by both parties. Wars have been fought and blood spilled in a seemingly everlasting dispute that continues to divide the great nations.

In amongst this perpetual state of war and generational dispute is the story of football’s development. The game is fast becoming one of the region’s most popular sports. It will never be cricket; but it doesn’t need to be. Football is finding its own place in a region that has craved a solid identity and stability for over 65 years.

5pm, Saturday 14th June 2008. The air is thick and the stands are full. Kashmir has, for the first time in their history, made it to the quarter finals of Indian’s leading knockout tournament, the Santosh Trophy. The achievement represents a major step forward in football development in Indian administered Kashmir.

Come kick off, the crowd is ecstatic. Thousands of Kashmiri spectators are supporting the local team – the biggest turnout for a football match in their history. Many of the locals have little or no knowledge of football yet the power of the sport and the sense of identity and purpose in competing against Punjab has brought them together.

Punjab, the hot plains of western India and eastern Pakistan, has long since held one of the strongest identities in the sub-continent. Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus all live within touching distance and had done so for over a thousand years. Largely in peace. That was until the partition. Few areas saw more violent fighting and fewer still the number of bodies that followed. An estimated 500,000 died in the Punjab region alone. Staggering numbers. However when an identity is so strong, so rich in heritage, it’s worth fighting for.

The contrast with Kashmir is stark. Even though India and Pakistan have divided Jammu and Kashmir, there’s a sense among locals that the war is a cultural inconvenience above all else. Having travelled to the region three times previously, most recently in 2011, there’s a growing sense of missed opportunities for economic development. Where are the tourists? Not here for sure, even though Kashmir is one of the world’s most stunning destinations.

So, without this solid identity, a football match against Punjab matters. For the first time in more than 20 years, Kashmir is in the quarters.

Every dribble by a Kashmiri player is cheered, every shot applauded. Every save is followed by a Mexican wave in the stands. But suddenly, a shot from the striker in the Punjab team finds the net.

The crowd goes silent.

The Punjab striker slides to the ground, punches the air with his fist and gestures to the crowd. Some spectators run on to the pitch. Players flee to the dugout. Police bludgeon two spectators in the middle of the pitch. The crowd howls in protest and soon a full pitch invasion is under way.

The fans pelt police and paramilitary troopers with stones, burn banners, overturn score boards and uproot flag posts. They shout anti-India slogans with a vengeance and demand independence for Kashmir. A football match has become a political rally.

The police call for reinforcements. A heavy baton charge leaves more than 40 people injured. Dozens are arrested and the match is cancelled.

It remains a highly charged area almost five years since that tumultuous day. For the record, Punjab were the eventual winners of the tie and the tournament.

At the turn of the twentieth century the British brought football to Kashmir like they had brought cricket in 1721. Why to Kashmir? Well, the Raj needed a location to migrate to during the hot summer months on the plains. Many went to Shimla, the beautiful northwest town, also on the foothills of the Himalayas. Others went to Murree, 35 miles northeast of the now Pakistan capital, Islamabad. Some, however, went to Kashmir.

The slopes of the Karakoram Mountains offered ample skiing opportunities and the lakes, valleys and rivers were a majestic sight. The wealthy came as far north as they could. It was like a British summer. The weather was fantastic and the air was fresh.

With them they brought Association Football. Football was formally introduced in Kashmir by CE Tyndale Biscoe, a British missionary who founded Srinagar’s historic Biscoe School in the autumn of 1891.

For Kashmiris it was easier to play than cricket and required less space and cost. A rubber ball was easy to make. They only needed one goal; two was a luxury. And from those very early holidaymakers, Kashmir’s affair with football began.

For Kashmiri’s, football was convenient. The rugged, steep hillsides in Kashmir were a challenge to play cricket on. Balls would find themselves in rivers with the swift nudge of a wristy strokemaker. There’d be no space for a third man. The same problems still exist today. A trip through Muzaffarabad, the Pakistan administered capital of Jammu and Kashmir, is a telling sight. On steep slopes, children kick a ball around. There’s not a bat in sight. They’re good too. Some sport Manchester United shirts, others traipse around in Liverpool. They’re unaware of the rivalry but they don’t care. They wouldn’t care even if they knew. All that matters is the ball. They protect it like a newborn, rarely letting it go near the steep mountain edge.

Fortunately for children in this region, buying a ball is far simpler than it was when the Raj first appeared. The British kids would bring balls with them. The Indians were left without one until the British asked them to join in.

Nowadays, most Nike and Adidas ball production comes from India and Pakistan. Towns like Sialkot in Pakistan have risen and grown in line with the leather industry. The quality of leather from the area is world famous. Factor in labour costs and it’s plainly obvious why major sports manufacturers are attracted to the city. Fortunately for the game in Pakistan, this has made equipment more accessible than ever – even as far north as Kashmir.

The love affair grew when the British left. Frequent stories of children from both sides of the divide playing football together still exist today. What does a child know about war? What does a child care? If they want to play football, or any other sport for that matter, they’ll play. And with anyone. It’s a romantic thought, that of Indian and Pakistani children kicking a ball together, however it’s becoming rarer.

That isn’t to say wider football participation is, however. Take a trip to the northern Pakistani city of Gilgit and there you’ll find football is the fastest growing sport. The annual school tournament draws in a greater crowd than the cricket tournament. Set against the backdrop of the most stunning valleys in Pakistan, perhaps the world, the tournament reflects the growth of the game outside Kashmir too.

Much like Darfur United in the troubled refugee camp, the power that football has to unite cannot be underestimated. It will never unite India and Pakistan; only politics can do that. However to unite the various separatist movements and Muslim sects is a real possibility. In Northern Pakistan, Shia’s play with Sunni’s. There’s no religious conflict on a football pitch. Just a sporting one. And long may that continue.

Improved facilities and access to boots and grass pitches is now commonplace in the fertile and plush landscape of Kashmir. The story is echoed across northern India and Pakistan. Players wear the latest football boots. They use the newest balls. The game is 21st century football.

Perhaps the next step is coaching. The coaching scene in Pakistan is in its infancy and still some way behind India. It’s perhaps reflective of the wider economic disparity between the two nations. India has invested in luring proven coaches to the country as far back as superb English coach, Stephen Constantine, in 2002. The growth continues today and the I-League is now one of India’s most watched sports. Furthermore, it has quality.

This growth will impact positively on football in Kashmir too. Historically, the attitude has been, ‘Whatever Indian can do, we can do better’. That is why when Kashmir defeated Delhi in the 2008 Santosh Trophy, a banner displayed, “Kashmir defeats India”.

Kashmiri’s have always been fighters. Amid the 4am bullet showers during the worst of the military conflict between these two nuclear nations, they would continue with daily life. Some would hide but many would continue to live their lives. They’re proud of their region and want to see its socio-economic potential fulfilled.

Alongside that, football will grow. After all, who wouldn’t want to play football amid the backdrop of the world’s tallest mountain ranges? And, of course, breathe in all that sensational fresh air.

By Omar Saleem

This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona