Are Punjab Back In The Indian Football Mainstream Conversation?

Ranjit Bajaj is a jack of all trades. His twitter bio conveys as much.

Owner- Minerva Punjab FC/CC, Minerva Academy (Estd. 1955). Ex-India U19 Football. Ex-Roadie S1. Mountaineer. Animal Activist. Asian Record Holder. Motivator.

He is no stranger to controversy either. In 2010, the Indian Express published an article on the criminal cases that had been slapped on him since 1996, calling him the ‘spoiled brat’ of high profile IAS officer parents.

In April last year, he received an eight-match stadium ban and a fine of Rs 7 lakhs by the disciplinary committee of the AIFF. The match commissioner report had marked him out in three different games for offensive behaviour, culminating in the use of abusive language at a referee in a game. In November, he slapped a match official during his academy side’s semi-final tie against Cordia Southall United Club in the Administrator’s Cup, in Chandigarh.

This year, he has already publicly challenged ISL clubs to a match, claiming that the standard of foreign players in his team were better than what was on offer in the high profile league. A week later, he rocked Indian football with allegations of match fixing by claiming that two of his players had been approached by bookies with offers to fix matches in the i-League.

There’s more, but then that would distract from what his team have been doing on the field. And they have been doing quite a bit.

Minerva Punjab FC only made its entry nationally in the 2015-16 season debuting in the I-League second division. A surprise second placed finish followed, and only the withdrawal of champions, Dempo SC, allowed the club a place in the I-League next season. The decision to include Minerva was delayed, which meant that the team was under prepared going into the season. Their head to head record against Mumbai FC saved them from relegation.

The strength of their academy came to the fore in the offseason when it was learnt that Minerva and Chandigarh Football Academy had contributed a third of the Indian contingent at the U17 World Cup. The Minerva colts made their mark in the tournament. Jeakson Singh played himself into the history books by becoming the first Indian to score at a World Cup. Anwar Ali was a rock in central defence and Nongdamba Naorem showed glimpses of his huge talent.

All three have continued their development at the Indian Arrows, with Minerva shrewdly loaning them out. Mohammad Shahjahan, who did not get any game time at the World Cup, has remained at the club.

This season was supposed to be about the Kolkata clubs. Suitably chagrined by last season’s failures, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal had flexed their financial muscle and refreshed their teams, poaching from teams around them. They made strong statements of intent too. The Mariners made Sony Norde the highest paid player in I-League history and East Bengal lured title winning coach, Khalid Jamil, from Aizawl FC. With Bengaluru FC exiting the league for the ISL, this was supposed to be a two horse race if there ever was one.

Minerva have surprisingly played spoilsport. Through a combination of astute recruitment and homegrown players upping their game, they have taken the league by storm. Though their form has dipped in recent weeks (they currently lie in third place), they are well placed to make a challenge for the title. If they do become champions, they would replicate the efforts of JCT Mills, who were the inaugural winners of the National Football League (NFL) in 1996-97.

Punjab have slipped off the radar in recent years, especially since JCT disbanded their team. The region has in the past provided Indian football with some great sides in JCT and the Border Security Force, through the 1970s, 80s and 90s. Punjab are also the second most successful state side in India, having won the Santosh trophy eight times.

A title win for Minerva could be just the fillip that the region requires to reclaim past glories. While Bajaj could rightly claim a lot of credit if this were to happen, the bigger story should be in terms of what it would represent for the north of India. The game needs to grow in surrounding states, and Punjab could just be the ones to show the way.

Image Credit – Minerva Punjab FC/ Facebook

 

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