As Minerva Punjab FC take to the field against Chennai City in their inaugural I-League match on Sunday, they will be the 35th and 36th teams to play in the country’s premier national football league. Minerva will be the fourth team from Punjab to play in India’s top division after JCT, Border Security Forces and Punjab Police.

For a region starved of top tier football, ISL or I-League, after the winners of the inaugural National Football League in 1996, JCT, decided to pull out after the 2010-’11 season, the introduction of Minerva to the top tier comes as some relief to a state that has produced several national team players – Sandesh Jhingan, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu and Sumeet Passi.

Birth of Minerva FC

For Ranjit Bajaj, the founder and CEO of Minerva, it was heartbreaking to see that aspiring footballers in the state were getting addicted to drugs and joining menial jobs. Speaking to, Bajaj said, “Today, there are two or three Punjabi boys in each team – ISL or I-League. For them, to shift base to Goa or Kolkata at a young age wasn’t an easy option.”

Bajaj himself played for the junior national team, making six appearances, and captained Chandigarh in the Santosh Trophy. “I realised that I was in a good position to help people. I stopped playing the day I started the football club.” Similar to fellow newbies Chennai City, the club started life as a futsal club, called the Minerva Sharks.

Two years prior to their entry into the I-League, Bajaj said he approached the Chandigarh Football Association, which “didn’t even have an office” and asked them to conduct a senior state championship, where the two Minerva teams finished 1-2.

“We had gone unbeaten in 40 tournaments in two years at this point and the AIFF informed us that we were eligible to join the I-League second division. At that time, we were given three days to fulfill the conditions. This time, we were given half a month,” Bajaj said, about Minerva’s entry into the second division, where they finished second to Dempo.

It wasn’t an easy path to the first division, though, for Bajaj and his team. “First, we thought they would promote two teams, so we thought we were in. Then, they said one, but Dempo dropped out. The promotion didn’t happen. At that time, I hoped we didn’t miss the opportunity. We have met the performance guarantee set by the federation for the next five years, by investing heavily on grounds and all of my junior programmes.”

Focus on youth

Bajaj described the hiring of Colm Toal as the technical director of the club as “his best signing.” The Englishman, formerly the technical director of the AIFF, was responsible for developing talents such as Jhingan, Sandhu and Jeje Lalpekhlua.

About Toal, Bajaj said, “If you have a great chef and bad ingredients, you can still make good food. If you have a crappy chef and good ingredients, you may get bad food. People buy stars, but no one tells them how to play as a team. The AIFF is saying, Sanjoy Sen is saying that from a developmental point of view that it is the best decision I could have taken.”

Minerva have also signed another UEFA Pro Licence coach in Jose Carlos Hevia. Bajaj insisted that the signings of both Hevia and Toal are for his junior teams. “You can’t develop football by signing oldies. You have to sign 18-19-year-olds for your first team. Cricket is a game where we can catch them at 11. We want to catch kids at six, seven or eight years old. We’ll start our Under-13’s next year and the U11’s a year after that. Three years down the line, we want the bulk of our U16’s and U18’s to form my main team.”

With the Under-15’s being crowned as the national champions and with the signings of captain Manandeep Singh, AIFF Elite Academy products and junior national players Arshdeep Singh, Nuruddin, Moinuddin Khan, Rakesh Oram, Vinit Rai, Uttam Rai, Germanpreet Singh, Vishal Ravindrakumar and Anirudh Thapa, Minerva seem to have a focus on youth with an average first team age of 22.

Some of these players have played under Toal at the AIFF elite academy and some have been under the Englishman from the time that they were 13. The coach, Surinder Singh, was also assistant at Pailan Arrows and has also been involved with a lot of the youth that the club has signed.

India international Manandeep broke out at the age of 20, having scored nine goals for Air India. He was voted that season’s emerging player and also played for India, signing ISL contracts with the Delhi Dynamos and the Kerala Blasters. Recurrent injuries have kept him on the sidelines but there’s no doubting the quality of the ex-East Bengal forward.

Minerva’s foreign players include forward Joel Sunday, former Sporting Clube defender Loveday Enyinnaya, Guam international Marcus Lopez and winger Victor Amobi.

Tie-ups and future

They also have an interesting set of tie-ups with Atletico Paranense of Brazil, Bolton Wanderers and West Ham, both clubs from England. Minerva also announced a collaboration with the Abhinav Bindra High Performance Training Centre. “I am a good friend of Abhinav’s. The philosophy was that we were a powerhouse in the 60’s but we have declined since then because we have not paid attention to sports science and technology. Cricket and hockey in recent years have shown that if you invest money, you will get results,” Bajaj said.

In this aspect, Minerva’s journey is awfully similar to Bengaluru FC’s, which started three-and-a-half years ago but managed to reach the AFC Cup final in 2016. Bajaj spoke of GPS trackers for performance monitoring, stat analysis, recording every match to show to his players, something which he hopes will cross what he reckons is not a big leap between his team and BFC, East Bengal or Mohun Bagan. All these factors are eerily reminiscent of the professionalism that Ashley Westwood brought to BFC when he first started at the JSW-owned club.

He acknowledged the similarities too. “If you look at their first season, the only big name they signed is Sunil [Chhetri]. The others were players warming benches elsewhere. The best talent is always taken up by the big teams, while four other boys are not given any opportunity. I have made sure that there are no big egos in my team and I have taken youngsters who were given no chances elsewhere.” He went on to cite the example of Jerry Lalrinzuala, Chennaiyin’s 18-year-old leftback, who “shone when given the chance.”

The issue of the pending merger between the ISL and the I-League does not shake Bajaj’s feelings for his project. “If the one club per state rule applies, Goa and Kolkata are ruled out, only Bengaluru is in. It would have hurt if we had been playing in the league for a couple of years but since we’re going to start playing in the top league this year, we’re okay with it. Maybe if we have some good investors coming in, we can even join the ISL.”

The failure of JCT and other Punjab-based clubs have taught Bajaj plenty, it would seem. “There was no professionalism in those clubs, they ran it like a local club. BFC have shown that you have to be professional, if you have a proper set-up, you can do it. Grassroots is not just about developing footballers, but football fans too. That is why I’m making entry free for all school and college kids this season.”

With the season approaching and the opener barely three days away, Bajaj is not aiming for mid-table mediocrity. “If you aim for the middle, you’ll fall low. Only if you aim for the top and even if you miss, will you fall in the middle. My aim is to win the I-League.”