A few years ago, Ranjit Bajaj was a regular figure for Chandigarh in the Santosh Trophy. He was probably the oldest member of the football squad and around him he saw young, talented boys, eager to make their mark.
What he realized was that after Jagatjit Cotton and Textile (JCT) Football Club, Phagwara, shut shop in 2011, there had been few avenues for players from Punjab to showcase their talent at the national level.
Over the next few weeks, he accounted for his resources and his ambitions alike. Just like that, Bajaj became the accidental owner of Minerva Punjab Football Club.
Ever since that day, the 38-year-old became a salesman of sorts, convincing folks around him to buy into a dream which culminated in Minerva being crowned champions on Thursday, in what is only their second season in the I-League.
This wasn’t a quick-fix or the story of easy cash-flow, as is the case with Indian football these days. It was about getting back to the roots by becoming a student of the game once again. It was about finding like-minded stakeholders who believed in the vision and some shrewd plotting, this time, from the sidelines of the football field.
Last year, on debut, Minerva finished ninth in an I-League of 10 teams. Twelve days before the season’s start, they had been informed of their inclusion in the league by the All India Football Federation (AIFF).
“In 12 days, you can’t even make a galli-mohallah team. Whoever (player) walked in got a contract and we were badly ripped off by agents. But we had little choice, given the time to prepare," Bajaj recalls.
Once the season was over, Bajaj got down to business. While on one hand, he was repaying the Rs45 lakh personal loan he had taken to pay salaries, he also started gearing up for the next year. This time around, he had time on hand and he decided to make the most of it.
At the core of the team were Punjabi boys, five of whom had played under him in the Santosh Trophy, and who had progressed up the ranks since turning out for Minerva’s under-18 side. A small contingent from Maharashtra too arrived for trials, most of them grateful for the opportunity and eager to prove a point.
To pick his foreigners, Bajaj sat through around 400 hours of players’ videos that were sent by agents, before shortlisting 50, of whom only 10 arrived for trials.
There wasn’t too much at stake—there was no fat paycheque, which is why most players didn’t show up. But what Bajaj offered them was a platform to shine, in the hope of a healthy contract in India next year.
One of those who arrived was Chencho Gyeltshen from Bhutan, who went on to leave a mark on the team and the season—his seven goals made him the league’s third highest scorer.
“When I release their salaries, it will come as a shock. All I asked them for was one year of their life at no cost, for, if they could shine, they would be in the money for the next few years. Almost 90% of my boys from last season are playing for an Indian Super League (ISL) club today. They bought into that dream," Bajaj says.
At the helm of things then was Spaniard Jose Carlos Hevia, a UEFA pro licence coach who was qualified for the task ahead. But what Bajaj noticed during training was that English itself was a problem for some of the players, let alone an accented one.
“The coach would be screaming instructions from the sidelines in his tuti-futi (broken) English. When I asked the boys ‘samaj aayi’ (understood), they would say, aaho (yes), when they hadn’t followed a word. It was translating (poorly) on the field as well," he says.
So Bajaj went with options closer to home with Khogen Singh, who was a youth development coach at the Minerva Academy. His calm head served as the perfect balance for the zest of Bajaj and assistant coach, Sachin Badadhe.
Singh, who had undergone the grind of league football with Salgaocar, Air India and Vasco as a player, had never been with a professional club at this level before. Badadhe was a coach at his son’s academy in Pune.
“I had trouble handling the team at the start. At the club, we believe that hard work can beat talent—one can get tired but can never let the instinct die. This is the reason for our success," Singh says.
When Bajaj set out to establish Minerva Football Academy, the only comfort that he had was a 14 acre facility. It housed the Minerva Academy—founded by his parents, who are former IAS officers—to train personnel for the Indian armed forces.
Five years ago, Bajaj had joined the business by introducing theoretical training. The land on this property was soon transformed to include football fields, a physiotherapy centre, a gym, swimming pool, classrooms and hostels to run the residential academy. Though this meant reduced expenditure to run the team, he still had to borrow Rs25 lakh this season.
“We exposed them to the training we give our armed forces. I followed the regime during my playing days as well—when I trained hard, I could recover faster and these were young boys as well. It didn’t go down well with the players initially and they complained every day," Bajaj says.
Left-back Abhishek Ambekar recalls one such predawn morning, a day after playing a hard game:
“It was my first hydrotherapy session. I thought relaxing in the pool would be good for recovery, since my body ached. The session started at 4am and once the coach blew his whistle, it went on, 100, 200, 300 reps…
“We were literally sweating in the pool. Sabko pata chala kaun kitne pani mai hai (everybody realized how much trouble they were in). Somebody’s pants were dropping, but they had no energy to pick it up. But it built team unity because everyone was in the same boat," Ambekar says, laughing.
Players were even taken through the grind of the obstacle course that potential military recruits endure. So hard were some of the sessions that Ambekar remembers players retching by the side of the field, only to return to the drills.
“Bajaj used to always be there and told us that if we worked hard now, it would be easier during the season. After some rest, our bodies felt strong. We were like rockets on the field the next day, we became complete athletes. It was a month of hell, but you know how you put a brick in a bhatti (kiln) to make it hard, that’s what it did for us," he adds.
While the bodies were getting battered and bruised on the field, Bajaj went about setting up a good preseason. In the recent past, the Chandigarh Football Association was running from the “dicky of the general secretary’s scooter", with a league that ran for 10 days and with no real competition. So Bajaj approached the AIFF and took permission to join the Punjab Football Association.
Minerva players got exposed to teams such as the Punjab Police and Border Security Force, comprising hardened players known for their physical game.
“They play something else, really. Any good player will know that he must release the ball else he’s going to get hurt and there are no fouls given," Bajaj says.
They finished runners-up in the league behind Punjab Police, but by then, all mistakes had been committed and accounted for, and a core group of 22 players was battle-ready for the season. The fine-tuning was further carried out during friendlies against ISL teams.
Away from the ground, the staff noticed three factions at the dining table—the Punjabi mundas, the Maharashtrian mulay and the aloof foreigners. To mix things up, fines were implemented, roommates shuffled and the team was sent out at times for an evening of beer, movies and bowling.
Over a period of time, these relative acquaintances transformed into bonds for the long run—the 90 minutes on the field complemented a healthy camaraderie off it.
“I’ve played with Kassim (Aidara) in Estonia, so I was happy to see that he too was at Minerva. We were roomies at the start, but these days, Kamalpreet (Singh) is the funny guy I like to hang out with the most," says William Opoku Asiedu, who struck the winning goal against Churchill Brothers in the final tie.
“For movies, it’s Amba (Ambekar) I chose to go with," Chencho adds.
At the same time, Bajaj had to take an important call on his Minerva Academy boys, who had donned the India jersey at the Fifa under-17 World Cup last year and were now being asked to turn out for the Indian Arrows. Some of these boys had been a part of the champion under-16 Youth I-League side—a tournament Minerva clinched for the third, consecutive time a few months ago.
“They would have got 5-6 games all season, while at Arrows, they would have played almost 16. It would have been a great experience for them and if I believe in football development, it was wrong to hold them back," Bajaj says.
“My favourite memory is still Jaekson Singh’s goal at the World Cup (a Minerva player on loan to Arrows, who scored against Colombia, India’s only goal in the tournament). The rest of the country saw him score once, but I’ve seen it so many times on the training ground. If he can grow elsewhere, why would I not allow him to?"
Of the final squad of 30, 80% had never played in the I-League before, while eight were from the academy.
Minerva’s opening fixture was at home. Or rather, a temporary home that shuttled between Panchkula and Ludhiana as the season progressed, egged on by a bunch of fans who had the enthusiasm but lacked the pedigree. Across the field were mighty Mohun Bagan.
By the end that game, the giants had been robbed of an opening win through a late goal from Moinuddin Khan.
“We play our games at high intensity and our counter-attacks run at the same speed, even towards the end. It was what I was looking for when I came to India," says Chencho.
In the second game against eventual runners-up Neroca, the Bhutanese struck his first goal and announced his arrival in Indian football. His pace on the flank terrified defenders, and he ended the season with seven goals and six assists. Minerva had found a star and the team started building their game around him.
So while Bali Gagandeep made his presence felt in the box, and Aidara logged in the miles in the midfield, it was Chencho who was given a freehand with his nippy runs.
“We were asked to focus on the formation, rather than the gameplay, as we prepared for each opponent. No one really cared if the guy ahead was missing the target, as long as we weren’t leaking at the back," Williams says.
The robust defence was manned by skipper Sukhdev Singh and Ivorian Guy Eric Dano, united by their poor English and an imposing presence. The goalkeepers came under most scrutiny, thanks to Bajaj’s favoured position during his playing days, and Minerva used three during the course of the season.
“It’s the only position where you have to constantly chase perfection. A striker can miss four and score one and become a hero. A goalkeeper can have the best day and save four, but if he concedes one, he instantly becomes a villain. Our three custodians are perhaps the best in the country today," Bajaj says.
The pre-season lessons ran well through the start, with Minerva logging just one loss, away to defending champion Aizawl. Most teams were left chasing the new boys right through the season—a trend that continued until the final round. Though they lost more games than the other three title contenders, they also logged more wins, even if it meant scraping through 1-0 at times.
By the time it all led up to the climax on Thursday, Minerva had their fate in their own hands, and they signed off with a win to bring the trophy back to the north for the first time since JCT had won it back in 1996-97.
Right through the season, Bajaj could be seen in the dugout—more coach than owner—at times screaming instructions in Punjabi to get through his local boys. Even when he started the club, he knew that he wouldn’t be the one dressing up and sitting in the stands during a game.
“I was (always) busy chasing football, it’s how I met my wife (Henna) as well. The man at the phone booth outside my school told me about a girl who would come and chat for hours about Manchester United and Arsenal. So I found her number through the directory, gave her blank calls and eventually spoke to her. She’s my biggest supporter today," he says, smiling.
Back then, Bajaj was busy preparing parchis (chits) for his examinations—today, he has books filled with scribbled notes from each game. He also has a plan—to prepare players for an Indian side that can play in a World Cup.
“To play in a World Cup, we don’t have to compete with Brazil at the start. We need to look at the top five in Asia and this is possible in the years to come. My next step is to take in boys as young as six at the academy, for these are the ones who will eventually play on that team," he says.
The dogged display all season has earned the team accolades and other teams will chase these players for the next season. Bajaj has no qualms in releasing these players.
“It’s what I had promised them; besides, it has been proven that we can do it over and over again. It’s nothing new—Iceland, Greece, Leicester, Aizawl—they all did it. We’ll continue making stars instead of buying them," he says.
“For the first time, I’ll actually make a profit on player sales and won’t have to bank on loans any more. It’s finally business for me," he says.