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Posted at: Jul 8, 2018, 1:23 AM; last updated: Jul 8, 2018, 1:23 AM (IST)

On a football field in Leh

Jammu & Kashmir’s cold desert is turning fertile ground for soccer players
On a football field in Leh

Gaurav Kanthwal

One life, live it up, because we got one life. From morning till night, the FIFA song plays in the bars and restaurants of Leh town. Sorry Bob Marley, Jimmi Hendricks and David Guetta, regular service will resume after the World Cup fever dies down. The giant screens are in place too, and it’s football, football and more football, all day long.

Leh, like any other town, is in thrall of FIFA World Cup. But youngsters do not just sit and watch the game. They play to their heart’s content because time is at a premium. Five to six months are all they get in a year before the town is wrapped in a thick coat of snow and a long wait begins. Yes, at 11,483 feet above the sea level, in rarefied air, with atmospheric pressure plunging to levels where breathing becomes a laboured exercise, they have taken to football.

Rough gets rougher

Low oxygen level here pushes you to breathe faster and deeper, sapping 25 to 40 per cent more energy from your body than anywhere else. Under such extreme circumstances, a 90-minute game of football in bone-chilling, dry conditions sounds inconceivable. But football-loving Ladakhis do it without any fuss — twice a day, four days a week, five months in a year. Rugged fellows as they are, it reflects in their choice of sports as well: ice hockey in winters, and football, their first love, as soon as the icy weather conditions subside. The town with a population of 50,000 has as many as 32 football teams from various age groups. It hosts the annual Bakula Rinpoche Memorial Football tournament where teams from Leh-Ladakh vie for the top honours. Oasis Football Club and Mahabodhi Football Club, by far, draw the best talent of the region, and no wonder, they are the top dogs here.

The playgrounds

At the first glance, Leh resembles a moonland with achingly beautiful surroundings, but rather tough living conditions. Finding playgrounds here is like looking for water on the moon’s surface. At best, you get playfields. An open expanse of land with rocky soil and gravel all over the place. The extreme weather conditions and cold, arid climatic conditions make grassy football ground a luxury here. However, the Jammu and Kashmir State Sports Council is now trying to tap talented players through the State Football Academy (SFA) set up recently. Forty girls and 70 boys (U-13 and U-16) train here as of now.

Footballers here are naturally endowed with endurance and athletic abilities. By undergoing hypoxic (low-oxygen) training throughout the year, they have a physiological edge over their counterparts. Their bodies produce more red blood cells to counteract the lower oxygen saturation in blood in higher altitudes. Twelve-year-old Tsewang Norbu, an SFA trainee, said, “There is healthy competition among the trainees here and more girls wish to be part of the programme. So it keeps everybody on their toes. Shenaz Parveen, Tsewang Sangdup, Stanzin Tsondus, Farida Bano, Qamarrun Nissa, Mehak Fatima all are very good players, but Alia Butt is the star of the team.”

On top of the world

Ladakhis’ love for the game has caught the fancy of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police Force (ITBP) too and it organises a high-altitude football tournament at various venues. In October, it became the highest football tournament ever played on Indian soil. ITBP officials went one step ahead and claimed it to be one of the highest football tournament played in world.

“Football is Ladakh’s first love. Once the ball starts rolling on the ground, people start filling in automatically. In the 1980s, it was the favourite past time of people here but its craze died down later. Now, it has revived with a number of football tournaments being organised,” says Tsering Angmo, Jammu and Kashmir State Sports Council in-charge in Leh. 

With 16 flights touching down in Leh daily, foreigners come to enjoy the scenic beauty here, but football still remains the most beautiful game for them. So, sightseeing and football go hand in hand these days. “It makes perfect business sense,” says Zaheer Khan, a local tour operator.

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