Ranjit Bajaj sold his remaining fifty percent stakes in I-League side Punjab FC to RoundGlass earlier this month to end a five-year stint as owner of the club that went from a debutant in the Second Division League to I-League champions in space of three years.

However, the real success the club witnessed under Bajaj was at the junior level where the team won four U-15 Youth League titles and one U-18 Elite League crown. As things stand, Punjab FC are champions in both the U-15 and U-18 category.

The club’s academy called the Minerva academy supplied four players to India’s U-17 World Cup squad in 2017 and have since produced many players who currently ply their trade in the Indian Super League.

Bajaj and the All India Football Federation have constantly been at loggerheads with the Punjab FC owner a constant critic of the federation over the ill-treatment of I-League clubs by the federation, he alleged.

His passionate celebrations in the Punjab FC dugout and his unabashed criticism of the AIFF on online platforms made Bajaj a cult figure in Indian football during his time as owner of the club.

Scroll.in caught up with the former Punjab FC owner to discuss his stint with the club, the challenges of being an I-League club owner, his impression of the federation and what the future lies ahead for him and Minerva Academy which he continues to own.

Here are the excerpts:

You have sold your stakes in Punjab FC, a club you created from scratch. What prompted you to make the decision?

I realised after the meeting between the stakeholders of Indian football and AFC officials that took place last year that for the next three years there’ll be no promotion in the I-League, but there’ll be relegation. Then we came to know as the year went on that Mohun Bagan and East Bengal could be joining the ISL which would mean no takers for broadcasting the I-League.

Now there’s no AFC Cup slot either, so playing in a league where there’s nothing left to play for and keep losing money especially when we don’t have spare income didn’t make sense.

Dempo showed that if you don’t play in the I-League you can save a lot of money with which you can make a world-class academy. With Minerva, the way we have been producing so many players without really having a lot of resources, more finances would make a huge difference.

Was it a difficult decision emotionally?

It wasn’t hard as I wasn’t selling Minerva, the academy. The name Minerva is more popular than Punjab FC as we had been playing with it for a few years. The brilliant part of the deal was RoundGlass sports wanted a direct entry into the I-League. They got that and I got to keep my name and academy, so it was a win-win situation.

So, what are your plans going ahead?

My plans have totally changed. I have very different priorities. It is a realisation that happened at the beginning of the year. When we won the I-League title or the junior titles it was us and the fans who were jumping with joy. But when Jeakson Singh, a player we made scored for India in the U-17 World Cup, the entire nation celebrated. That’s the kind of legacy we want to have.

My plan now is to create a group of players that in the long run that can take India to the World Cup. It’s a dream for everyone associated with Indian football. I want to focus on kids from an age group of 6-9 years and provide them with the best facilities at our academy, take them on tours and expose them to teams from all over the country on a regular basis. This apart from the U-13s, U-15s and u-18s players we already have. I can do this with 25 percent of my budget for the senior team.

How can you take the academy to the next level? Does your experience in senior football help?

Experience is invaluable as now I’ll be able to implement everything that I was able to with my senior team when we participated in the AFC Cup. We know exactly it takes at the highest level of football and what the best practices are.

Things like hiring a full-time chef. We would educate the kids at the age of six and seven what the right nutrition is and not have to change it when they are 16 or 17. I have experienced that when you ask young Indians to change their diet and have diets with stuff like pasta they can’t handle it. Also, things about injury prevention, injury rehab, all these things will be taught from a very young age so that it’s ingrained in their bloodstreams.

If we do this well for the first 3-4 years, I’m sure that in ten years we’ll have a conveyor belt of players for India.

Do you plan to return to senior football?

I have always said that I never want to buy my way into the top league and I will do so building from the bottom. So I’d rather play senior football only when there is promotion to the top league.

We have plans to return but the next three-four years are all for the academy. Then we’ll enter the second division and try to get to the top league.

When you go this way, you build up an ecosystem around you. You build up your fan base, a regional base. I think it will be better for us if we know that in 4-5 years we’ll be playing in the top league as we’ll have time to prepare for sponsors, facilities and it won’t be that big an economic shock for us if we go year by year.

Do you think with the current state of the I-League, more clubs will follow this route?

I thought more I-League owners would already go this way. We have had a very successful model for junior football, but we have also proved that we can be successful in senior football by using more homegrown players and buying only a few players. For me, this is the only way one can be sustainable in Indian football.

However, the problem is for this you need to invest in the academy for three-four years and do nothing else. In Indian football, everyone wants results in 3-4 years, no one wants to take the challenge of actually developing youth and growing slowly.

Read: Armando Colaco interview: Indian clubs don’t have faith in local football coaches

You had quite a few tiffs with AIFF, what do you expect from them to take Indian football forward?

Indian football needs a federation that can be trusted and not one that is cutting down the ecosystem. A stakeholder must be able to get in touch with the president as soon as possible if there’s a need. Here we have to wait for four months just to get a meeting.

The AIFF has no plan for the future. If they had one, they wouldn’t have kept saying that we’ll qualify for the World Cup in a certain year and then keep pushing that date ahead every few years.

What can we expect from Minerva Academy in the near future?

If I leave it to the AIFF, we are never going to qualify for the World Cup. I’m setting a target of 2034 to be able to produce a batch of players that can make India competitive at the world level.

I hope to make a world-class academy, where we could have foreign teams come and find it good enough to use it. Meanwhile, we want to keep producing players as we have had and this time make even better players that can elevate the standard of Indian football. Manchester United have had at least one homegrown player in their squad for 81 straight years. That is real youth development and we want to try and achieve that kind of legacy at Minerva.