To keep youth away from drugs, and engage them in sports, local footballers have organised football tournaments in North Kashmir's Bandipora district at Sher-e-Kashmir Sports Stadium. Their motto "Say No To Drugs, Yes To Football," has now sparked a football craze in the whole district.

In Kashmir valley, sports activities have resumed after a two-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. in Bandipora with full excitement among players and spectators, who gather at the Sher-e-Kashmir Sports Stadium. This place serves as Bandipora's primary sporting venue, and is almost 60kms away from summer capital Srinagar.

This stadium has been hosting football matches for many years and clubs from other districts love to play here thanks to the love showered on them by the people of Bandipora. The grandeur of Sher-e-Kashmir Sports Stadium Bandipora, which is surrounded by a stunning mountainscape, is unmatched.

The Sher-e-Kashmir Sports Stadium Bandipora hosted the first-ever night football game under floodlights in 2017, watched by a large audience. Real Kashmir FC and Mohemmadan FC squared off in the game (now ARCO FC). Since then, a lot of matches have been played under floodlights, and the attendance has always been enormous.

This year, the remaining matches of a previous tournament the "8th Syed Hashmeer Memorial Football Cup" under the slogan "Say No To Drugs, Yes To Football", that was put on hold after the abrogation of Article 370, and COVID-19 lockdowns were played first. All of the matches were intense

.Every evening, people from all the age groups gather around the football field to watch the game at the stadium. This season, there is a greater degree of enthusiasm for football among the people. The crowd is always large at every game and whether the game is played between the home teams or visiting ones.

According to a member from this year's organising body, "this tournament was inaugurated in 2019 but only a few matches were played that year due to the repeal of Article 370. For the following two years, Covid prohibited matches from being held. We have been holding football tournaments for a long time, and this was the eighth edition with a total of 28 teams, of which 20 were from our district while eight were from other districts of Kashmir.

"Sports can help keep our youngsters away from drug addiction at a time when it is at its peak. Sports provides them a stage to display their talent." He added that the locals offered great support and "a sizable crowd was constant. "The presence of Kashmir's top teams in our tournament sparked excitement among locals about how the home teams would fare versus those from other districts," he said.

All the football tournaments in Sher-e-Kashmir Sports Stadium Bandipora are held under the supervision of the District Football Association (DFA) Bandipora.

The DFA was established in 1984, and ever since, has assisted tournament organisers in running their events. An official from DFA said, "at this time, Sher-e-Kashmir Sports Stadium Bandipora is hosting four tournaments." He added that this year, the number of teams registered with the DFA was at an all time high of 36.

This football frenzy has also led to the creation of numerous new football teams, some of which are gaining popularity. Bandipora Titans Football Club is one of the recently established clubs. Founded in March this year, this team is capturing everyone's attention with the performance of its players.

Azhar Lone, manager of Bandipora Titans Football Club said, "I've played for many local teams as well as some of Kashmir's premier teams, including Real Kashmir FC, JKPDC, and JKFOREST. The goal of starting my own club is to train players for more advanced football formats.

"Our club currently has 22 players, and one of them is from Ghana. He was acquired by us via an agent. However, due to his injury, he was able to play just one game for us. As a new team we are receiving fantastic support as a result of our performance. After winning our first seven straight games, we fell to Real Kashmir FC in the tie-breaker and lost our eighth game. The reason for our club's performance is the commitment of the players and effective coaching.

"From next year, our club will compete in the Premier Division in Srinagar, where we will face off against the premier clubs in Kashmir. This would give our players the experience of playing professional football."

The local youth are now feeling a significant impact from the ongoing tournament. They too are acquiring a passion for the game and throng to the Sher-e-Kashmir Sports Stadium Bandipora regularly to practise with their coaches.

Imran Hashmee, the head coach of Hashmee Football Academy said, "since 2014, our academy has coached hundreds of players. Compared to previous years, more young boys have joined this year. There are about 50 students enrolled in our academy who are divided into the A, B, and Junior categories and who all share a deep love for football.

"These young lads need our encouragement. At present, when the majority of children are engrossed in computers, televisions, and mobile phones, these children attend early morning training sessions at the stadium.

"Drug addiction has reached a crescendo in Kashmir over the last two to three years. Our goal is to keep the youth involved in sports and away from these habits.

"There are many opportunities in football for players that put in the effort and commitment. Danish Farooq Bhat, Mehraj-u-din Wadoo, and Ishfaq Ahmad are good examples from Kashmir who have played for the Indian national team.

"Sports are as significant for children as schooling. Sports help them stay in shape, focus better, and deal with stress and depressive symptoms more effectively." A study has found that participating in sports helped young individuals focus, and reduced their likelihood of acting aggressively or furiously.

Sporting activities for teenagers give them a way to express their emotions and energies. Sports and exercise have been proposed as alternatives to traditional rehabilitation methods in recent studies due to the good effects they have on patients with specific addictions. According to experts, exercise helps people unwind and enables drug addicts to engage themselves without using drugs.

Mohammad Nayeem, a professional football player from Bandipora said, "this tournament is a wise idea and will really help keep young people away from bad things. When a sports person considers doing something bad, the first thing that comes to mind is how he will face society, because a sportsperson is well-known in their community.

"I'm happy to see how this tournament is being appreciated by the general population. Playing in front of a large audience makes us feel proud. We are compelled to perform well by the audience's encouragement."

Nayeem added that even vendors outside the stadium earn their livelihood when a big crowd comes up to watch the game, because people prefer to buy food from them.

According to officials the only thing that this stadium lacks is "sufficient irrigation", this causes the green grass to wither within a month. However, officials say that they "will continue to hold Football tournaments under the slogan 'Say No To Drugs, Yes To Football'. It is the 8th edition of 'Syed Hashmeer Memorial Football Cup' and the 9th edition will start soon."

Drug addiction in Kashmir is increasing at an alarming rate. According to a survey conducted by the National Drug Dependence Treatment Centre of the All India Institute of Medicine (AIIMS), in Kashmir, 10-15 new drug users, predominantly heroin addicts, are admitted to hospitals every day. Around six lakh Kashmiris are addicted to drugs, according to this survey released by AIIMS.