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The turbulent tale of Minerva Punjab FC

He receives a tweet at 11.30pm: “Paaji what about me? I’m a Minerva fan too”. The next day he receives another one at 11.45pm: “Going to play football tomorrow, will wear the jersey you gifted me”.

Over the past few months, a handful of football fans had begun to develop an affinity towards the 38-year-old. Meet Ranjit Bajaj, the eccentric founder of Minerva Punjab FC, who finds it impossible to decline any football enthusiast asking for his club’s jersey. The usual drill involves sending your postal address to him via direct message.

“I have been after my wife to open up a shop,” he said. “Till she gets a shop opened up, all the people that ask for jerseys, if I like them, I am going to keep on sending free stuff. She keeps on shouting at me, telling me that I am ruining the club. Somebody wants to wear a Minerva jersey, how sweet is that?”

The gesture is no doubt sweet, but the process of forming the club? Far from it. Minerva made their I-League debut in 2017, twelve years after its formation. Bajaj created the club initially with the sole intention of playing local, six-a-side tournaments in Punjab. The idea of developing a professional club seemed far-fetched to him back then. 

“What I find disgusting is, if I have to arrange a local cricket tournament, 20 different shops in one sector are ready to pay Rs5,000 each. If I try and arrange a football tournament, even the biggest companies don’t shell out Rs5,000”.

In 2017, his cricket team managed to win six tournaments in five states. Each of those victories was accompanied with a cash reward of Rs2-3 lakh each. It dawned upon him that cricket is not the game that needs help and decided to nose-dive into the hazy world of Indian football. Bajaj set himself a clear target from day one—qualify for the I-League. A target that can only be achieved by winning the state championship.

“I got to know that the Chandigarh state championship hadn’t been organized since the past eight years. I had to force these guys to organize the tournament. The first time it was organized three years ago, 35 clubs took part,” he said.

Bajaj pulled a Sharne Warne; a former national level player, he slotted himself into the team as the first-choice keeper. They ended up winning the tournament. In fact, as recently as 2015, aged 36, he gave his trials for the Santosh Trophy and was selected as the first-choice keeper for Chandigarh. A ligament tear in the third match eventually signalled the end of his participation.

Minerva’s rise from recreational to competent has been meteoric. Within a span of two years, they won their state championship and finished as runners-up in the I-League’s second division. Dempo handed them a 3-1 loss in the final qualifying round. But the Goan side refused to participate in the first division, owing to differences with the All India Football Federation (AIFF) over the proposed roadmap for Indian football. 

Bajaj’s excitement was palpable, he immediately wrote to the AIFF about the possibility of Minerva plying their trade in the top tier. “They told me we’re going to be opening it to the public and it will be a corporate entry. What is the meaning of having 50 matches in the second division, played all over the country, if you’re not going to promote teams? If Dempo pulled out, it’s their fault”.

With virtually nothing to lose, he filled in the corporate entry form as well. But every moment of promise had its fair share of snags. “The first thing they asked me was Rs100 crore bank guarantee. I wrote to them that I can’t even give you one crore. Look at our football and results. We have proven it,” he said.

His plea was justified. Minerva’s arrival is real. They’re the only team in the history of the I-League to win the U-16 title on consecutive occasions. “Mohun Bagan and East Bengal has a 100-year legacy, they shouldn’t be buying players. They should be having academies. But they don’t, ” Bajaj said. 

With a residential campus that sprawls across 14 acres and state-of-the-art facilities to guide his young players, Bajaj spent a total of Rs12 crore, leaving no stone unturned and ensuring he was building a club and not merely an entity. 

This was money that Bajaj had accumulated from Minerva Academy, a training institute for aspirants to the armed forces. Ranjit Bajaj and his family are the owners. 

The AIFF eventually agreed to let them compete with the big boys. But the delayed decision came at a cost. “They gave us 12 days to prepare for the I-League. You have no idea how we set up the team, without any trials. Whoever came, we selected them. We had to fill up the squad. They leave you high and dry and don’t inform anything... They picked on us for small things like the names and I-League logo not being printed properly. It was totally wrong how they treated us,” he said.

29 January 2017 was the day every Minerva fan was looking forward to. Three days after India celebrates Republic Day, the club was all set to play their first home game in the I-League. You get where this is going. 

The state decided to organize a military parade on their makeshift home ground—Guru Nanak Stadium, Ludhiana—120km away from their campus. Technically speaking, every match that Minerva played this season was effectively an away game. 

“It was a horrible set of affairs”, Bajaj exclaimed. “We used to pay them for maintenance but I had to once again spend Rs4 lakh to lay the new grass.” A month of smooth sailing and something wasn’t right. Where did the hurdles disappear to?  

“After one month, they had trials for shot put!" Ouch. "After all this, I got the ground looking fine and green. Then all of a sudden, we come to know Badshah is performing on the ground.”

Ranjit shocks the Indian football fraternity as much as he impresses it. Not one to shy away from sensational demonstrations, of late, he’s been regularly watching his U-18 side play from the rooftop of a nearby building.

In April, he received a blanket eight-match stadium ban and a fine of Rs7 lakh by the disciplinary committee of the AIFF. The outspoken owner that he is, he aired out his frustrations to the referee during an I-League match. 

“They’re basically saying we don’t like you and you’re getting to big for your boots, so better watch out. That’s what the AIFF is trying to tell me. They have not paid us our stipend and then they tell me I have seven days to pay the fine. I am supposed to keep on paying them fines but they won’t give the money they owe us, ” Bajaj said.

According to Bajaj, the AIFF is supposed to pay every I-League club an amount in the region of Rs55-60 lakh (40% of their annual budget) over the course of the entire season, used for conducting home games, travelling during away games and so on. 

“They have sent us only Rs10 lakh in total and that too after 17 matches of the I-League. They’re supposed to send it after every three matches. I have taken a loan of Rs45 lakh to pay the salaries of the players in the last three months. Because AIFF is messing up, they don’t care,” he said.

AIFF general secretary Kushal Das on Friday said that approximately 75-80% of the stipulated amount has already been transferred to most clubs. He suggested that the remaining sum will be sent across within 10 days’ time.

Minerva Punjab FC, though, isn’t entitled to this remittance due to Bajaj’s refusal to sign the required agreement papers, said Das. These documents include ones related to the fulfilling certain obligations such as a performance bank guarantee, investment in youth systems, etc.

“I don’t recall Mr Bajaj signing the agreement. He should call up the CEO of the I-League and sign the agreement form,” Das said.

This wasn’t exactly what Ranjit Bajaj had envisioned. It was never supposed to be easy, but now, it’s only going to get harder.

Minerva’s final match of this season was symbolic of the owner’s journey so far. Trailing 4-2 until the 80th minute, they pulled off a stunning comeback to secure a 4-4 draw. It is worth reiterating—this is Minerva’s first season in the I-League and Bajaj isn’t part of this hoopla to merely secure a draw.

“They make it as difficult as possible, it’s a painful experience man. I used to have dreams that I’ll enjoy myself as an owner of a club! Oh my god, there is not a moment to rest, there is something or the other happening everyday”, said Bajaj.

Somesh Chandran is a journalist at Sportskeeda and the founder of Dohaz.com, a lyrics discovery website.

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