As one of the few British Asian professional footballers, Kashif Siddiqi has overcome more than just opponents on the pitch in his quest to fulfil his dream; there has been abuse from fans, ridicule from teammates and even question marks over his ability to kick a ball.
But now the defender is preparing for his toughest challenge yet as he swaps Oxford United for one of the world’s most militarised and politically contentious regions where he will ply his trade for Real Kashmir, the only professional football club in Indian-administered Kashmir.
The unorthodox loan move will see Siddiqi take to the field in a nuclear flashpoint flooded by almost 800,000 troops, who have placed the state in lockdown after the Indian government revoked its special status.
It has further fuelled an armed insurgency, which has been raging for more than 30 years and has resulted in a bitter standoff between India and Pakistan, which both claim Kashmir as their own. At the same time, their respective armies have been regularly exchanging fire, resulting in more than 100 deaths this year.
“It’s not your typical football loan move, but then I don’t really do normal. Of course, I’m a bit worried. I’ve been following the news and know that things are really difficult there at the moment,” said Siddiqi. “But I know what this club means to the youth of Kashmir, and I know that football can make a difference to their lives, as difficult as they are.”
The move came about through contacts Siddiqi’s agent has with Real Kashmir, which was formed three years ago in an attempt to use the game to help youngsters in the state cope with the ugly problems they have to face. The club plays in the I-League, India’s top tier.
Siddiqi, 33, will stay with teammates in a hotel protected by armed guards who will be on patrol during training sessions. The region remains under curfew and public gatherings are banned, meaning Real Kashmir have not been able to play any home games at their ground in Srinagar, capital of the Indian-administered state. Before that they attracted crowds of more than 20,000.
Siddiqi maintains that, while his loan move has raised eyebrows among some players, it is proof of his commitment to the wider importance of the game. In 2013 he co-founded with former Chile international Elías Figeroa the Football 4 Peace charity, which runs a number of programmes around the world that use the game to address social issues. In Britain, these have focused on tackling knife crime and gang violence.
The organisation has attracted support from the likes of Prince William, Pope Francis and notable football figures. This week Siddiqi will address the UN general assembly on his work. Coincidentally, Pakistan is planning to raise the Kashmir issue at the same time, accusing India of oppression and human rights violations.
With the two nations at loggerheads, Siddiqi has already scored a notable goal for the football diplomacy he swears by before setting foot in Kashmir. Despite being partly of Indian origin, he has also represented Pakistan at full international level. “If that doesn’t show you the power of football to transcend politics and borders, I don’t know what does,” he said.
Prior to joining League One Oxford United at the start of this season, Siddiqi, who played college football in the US on a scholarship, was at Northampton Town. He was inspired to pursue a career in football and use the game for wider good by his mother and Islamic faith.
Real Kashmir co-founder Sandeep Chattoo revealed that the decision to sign Siddiqi was taken for more than just football reasons. He said: “Kashif is a unique player who will fit right in and we hope that his football for peace efforts will align with our mission and continue to bring hope and joy to the region.”
Oxford United director Zaki Nuseibeh added: “I am confident that Kashif will be a great asset to the Real Kashmir squad. He will also undoubtedly be passionately carrying a message of peace to a region so desperate for it.”
As has been the case so often in Siddiqi’s career, as he prepares to pack his boots, he knows there is more at stake than just the outcome of what happens at the end of 90 minutes.
“Football touches the lives of 3.5 billion people around the world. But sadly, it does not do enough to touch on the issues that affect them,” he said. “That’s what drives and inspires me about the game, and what better place to put this to the test than in a place like Kashmir?”