#TFGinterview with Ranjit Bajaj (Part 2) - changing gears, long term vision and need for an open league
RANJIT'S RELATIONSHIP with football extends far beyond this club. He regularly played football at a high level, and it was the love for the game that was the original motivation behind establishing the club.
He reminisced about the early days of the club, how it went through a rapid transformation and how his own relationship with the sport changed with it,
"We started out as a six-a-side club that played in the weekends. That's what we did for the next 8-9 years. Till 2013 we didn't play any serious football. In 2013, I took our best boys and started playing in all the local tournaments. At first, even I was a part of the team. I stopped playing the day my club started seriously looking for a place in the second division. Before that I had played in Santosh Trophy and Durand Cup also. We were nobodies, and hardly expected much... but we were unbeaten for two years, man!"
The sudden rise of Minerva Academy changed not only the people associated with it, but the football culture around it as well. And it was those ripple effects that upheld the club as a prime candidate for professional level league football. Ranjit explained,
"Before we came along, there was no association doing any work in Chandigarh. At first they didn't even have an office there. But we went down and convinced them to have a club championship which they had not had for the last 7-8 years. And then Minerva's senior and junior teams came first and second in the league and championship. So they recommed us for the second division; we were lucky because we had a ground, a hostel, equipments and everything so we fulfilled the criteria. We were working with the Armed Forces, training with them and all, so luckily the infrastructure did not cost half as much as the others have to shell out."
From an academy side playing local football to a top division professional club in less than four years is a hell of a transformation. And Ranjit admitted that the ride had not been easy. He, however, said it was all worth it, because every little hardship the club takes plays into a cohesive long term vision that it's working towards, and the end justified the means,
"There have been challenges every single day and there will be challenges in the future. You just have to see the positives or nothing will happen. How do I get my players to be selected for the national team? I'm gonna make sure my U-16 team, who are already national champions, stay together for the next 5 years. I'm gonna give them the best possible coach. All the players I'm picking up, the real prospects for the club... all under 21. It's all part of a long term strategy. Why? Because there are lots of players who will shine if they get a chance. If a 17-18 year old talented kid gets to play regularly at the highest level, his game will improve exponentially. Jerry Lalrinzuala is a prime example of that."
But Minerva's debut venture at the top division is set to be a temporary one. Once the I-League and ISL are merged, the club along with most I-League clubs is set to be forcefully relegated to the new second tier league, League One. Ranjit said he was aware of the situation but he was willing to go along with it as long as the Indian football scenario goes through some significant changes in the coming years,
"I'm happy with that as long as they have a roadmap that says that in 5-6 years a merit-based promotion-relegation system will be applied to ISL. And also a share of the television revenue has to reach down to the clubs in the lower divisions; as is the case in every country with a healthy league pyramid."
Apart from the need for pro-rel, Ranjit also made a case against the current one-city-one-team policy that the Indian football management are trying to apply to the leagues, despite the potential advantage it could bring to his own club,
"IMG-Reliance apparently also have this rule that you cannot have two clubs from the same city. Which personally I think is a crap rule. The biggest rivalries in the world are derby matches. Forget the world, look at Kolkata. East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, a hundred thousand people. So you can't just shut the door on this. So this has to change, for the sake of Indian fooball. For us, it's fine. There is no big club based anywhere near Minerva Punjab. If the rule stays like this we'll have a good shot at making it to the ISL eventually. But other places, it will cause problems."