IT'S NOT EASY being a club like Minerva Punjab FC in contemporary Indian football.
They don't come from heritage like the clubs from Bengal or Goa, and they haven't entered the scenes with the big-money blessings that come with ISL. They didn't have an existing fanbase to capitalize on, and no head start or incentives to get them off the ground.
And they aren't even one of those new entrants in the scene who are motivated by the newfound popularity of the ISL and hope to one day get a return on investment after the leagues are merged and promotion-relegation is adopted throughout the pyramid.
Minerva Punjab started their journey as Minerva Academy back in 2005, with the aim to be active in both football and cricket at the club level. Not hurried for instant limelight, they tried to do it right; building an academy, a junior team and starting their journey out of the lower leagues.
And now, almost 12 years later, they are about to see their first bit of sun; a debut in the I-League that came about under extraordinary and dramatic circumstances.
Having been through a harrowing journey up the ladder, Ranjit Bajaj, the owner of the club, told TFG that he enjoyed every bit of it,
"It was a great learning experience. I'm so much well prepared for this season because of that. You know, this process of starting from the lowerst tiers and moving up to the top division in 5-odd years, it gives any club a chance to get things right; create a fanbase, gain confidence and everything. If in one year I have managed to learn so much through hard work in the second division, that says a lot."
But Minerva's I-League debut is one that got the green signal in the 11th hour, after months of delays over the potential departure of the Goan clubs and a corporate bidding process that went far from smoothly. Ranjit acknowledged that having such little time to prepare for the I-League has made things much more tough for them, and affected productivity,
"These are the things that need to be worked on... right after the previous season ended we knew the Goan clubs were threatening to pull out. It should have been dealt with then itself so that we knew how many spots would open up and new teams would have enough time to prepare for coming into the I-League. We actually need more time than the ones that are already there, not less; we have to get sponsors, stadiums... everything! But it has become a tradition for clubs to hardly get any time... if you give us 10 days to prepare, that's not even enough to make a team for a small tournament, let alone a whole season."
He also believed that Minerva Punjab FC did not need to enter the I-League through the corporate quota, since they were next in line for promotion after Dempo who pulled out, and they paid their dues in terms of football development,
"We told them, why do we even need to apply in the corporate quota? Dempo were the team promoted from second tier, now they were out, so we automatically qualified... and still they were not promoting us! Thank God we went the other way... we didn't want that because of the money, we didn't have the Rs 100 crore bank guarantee to show for. They wanted a performance guarantee; to show that we'd spend Rs 15 crore in developing football over the next 5 years. We showed them that without any commitment we have already spent more than Rs 12 crore in football development this year, including land for a ground and infrastructure... we're the only ones other than Bengaluru FC to have AIFF-approved youth development and grassroots programmes. In our very first year, our U-16 team became the national champions, and there was no team our senior team did not beat in the second division. So the talent is there, we just needed a platform."
But despite the hectic nature of team-building and a very short pre-season, Ranjit said he was confident that the club was more than prepared to be a competitive side in the I-League; because they have been through it all before,
"We had 15 days to make the second division squad, and we were in title contention till the last game. We were playing Dempo, and just before that game they got back all these players who had played in the ISL: Romeo, Mandar, Laxmikant Kattimani, Holicharan... haha, that was a bit unfair on us because we were a second division team playing FC Goa, basically. And our budget wasn't even one tenth of what an ISL franchise has. Had circumstances been different, we would have beaten them. We surely did it earlier."
But despite the ride to the top being such an uncomfortable one, Ranjit had some good things to say about the Indian football top brass,
"I know AIFF get a lot of criticism but I've been pleasantly surprised by them. To be honest with you, I really thought they were not gonna take us. I heard those rumours about Churchill coming back and everything... if Churchill come in then clubs like Mohammedan Sporting, Rangdajied United all have the same right to make an I-League return. Woh nahi karenge toh kaise karenge? That's why I wrote an open letter to the AIFF saying that given how we had done in the second tier, playing in the top division was our birthright. Now they were really nice to us. They acknowledged what we had done for the sport, setting up a state-of-the-art academy, the largest residential academy in the country... a campus with 3 grounds... all achieved within one year. They acknowledged all that."
So now that they are here, what is it that Minerva Punjab FC wanted to achieve? What was the vision that they brought to the league? Ranjit slowly laid out a clear-cut perspective that the club had towards Indian football,
"You know it's not only about money. In that famous meeting in May where they were discussing the roadmap and invited all the clubs, two people spoke out. One was Peter Vaz of Sporting Clube de Goa, the other was me. I was the first to stand up and talk. My theory was and I told them that basically what you're trying to do is that the story of Leicester City can never happen in India. If money's gonna win every time when others aren't ben gonna get a chance to enter the big league! In football, everything should be merit-based. That's what we are all about, merit. And they listened to that, everything I had to say."
As for Minerva Punjab FC's role within the Indian football universe, he said the objectives of the club were long term, meant to unfold slowly but surely just like their 10 year gestation period that molded them into a club that was capable of playing in India's biggest football league,
"We're so happy about the fact that we have been able to give back to Indian football in some ways. They have trusted us with this and we're not gonna be letting them down. The last I-League team from Punjab, JCT, used to get crowds of 200-400 even when they were the champions and had Bhaichung Bhutia, IM Vijayan playing for them. And even in our first season, even though Ludhiana isn't our actual home and we had to travel like an away team, we used to get 2000-3000 people regularly in our second division matches. So it's about how you engage. I don't care about earning money. I don't want people about 35-40 years old to be our fanbase. I want kids to come in because grassroots isn't just through camps, and a football fan culture has to be developed here. To get kids to engage with football, give them somebody to support! In 10 years, I hope these kids will either become footballers or our regular fans and we will have a jam-packed stadium every game."