Minerva give India another champion team from Punjab
Spectators who arrived at Panchkula's Tau Devi Lal Stadium on Thursday for the final game of Minerva FC's season -- against Churchill Brothers -- were greeted by posters that spoke of the team's journey and where they saw themselves. "Singh is King, Chak de Fatte," said one. "Started from bottom, now we here," said another.
'Here' referred not just to the Tau Devi Lal Stadium but also to the rather unexpected position the home team found themselves in. A win in their final game of the season meant I-League victory. Ahead of the season, anyone hyping Minerva's chances of a title might have been dismissed as a romantic or (more likely) crackpot. Economics ruled against them: they spent the least among any of the 10 teams in the league. History wasn't on their side either. No team from the northern states had ever won the national league since 1996, when JCT Phagwara won the National Football League. And that team had been defunct since 2012.
The odds of Minerva repeating that achievement were slight. This after all was a team that had finished second from bottom in their debut season in the I-League last year. Even the I-League itself didn't have much faith in the leaders. The league trophy was kept in Kolkata, in anticipation of being awarded to either fourth-place East Bengal or second-place NEROCA FC, who were playing each other.
And yet 'here' they were. With 32 points, they were just ahead of three rivals. For the faithful, this tenuous grasp on the title mattered little. Even before the start of the game, they -- for the most part footballers in Chandigarh -- danced to a boombox belting out DJ Bravo's 'Champion'. The fact was that they would be proved right -- a 1-0 win over Churchill rendering the rest of the league's results irrelevant.
While the footballing hipsters busied themselves with splitting hairs over the kind of permutation of results in the three simultaneous games that might result in Minerva falling short, the Punjabi locals were vocally confident of the victory.
Minerva officials too had prepared for the win in advance. They distributed vuvuzelas and special-edition T-shirts with the club logo and 'champions' printed in the front. Face masks of Chencho Gyeltshen -- Minerva's leading scorer with seven goals and easily their talisman of the season -- had been printed and marked for distribution, although in a last-minute hitch the distributors realized there was no string with which to keep the masks in place.
"Such a Minerva thing," joked Henna Bajaj, wife of team director Ranjit Bajaj and herself a key member of the official staff.
The preparations might have been considered a bad omen by some, considering the glitches Minerva had already undergone this season. They had had a healthy lead on top of the table four games ago but had steadily seen the gap whittled down. They could have all but assured themselves of the I-League title against East Bengal four matches ago, but lost that game at Panchkula. A surprise loss against a struggling Gokulam followed. After a much-needed win against Aizawl, Minerva stumbled to a loss against a side battling relegation to even make the final game something more than a formality.
Gyeltshen insisted his side never doubted themselves even when it appeared that they had run out of steam. "We always believed in ourselves," he said. 'We knew we would win the league."
Team director Ranjit Bajaj was a lot more candid and admitted they had been tense. He himself looked a lot more relaxed once he had the oversized I-League winners' cheque in the boot of his car.
As he had watched the I-League title seemingly slip away from his grasp, Bajaj had struggled to keep a lid on his emotions. Bajaj, the eccentric larger than life, with a history of bad behavior but also an instinct for football, had to learn to let go.
And so in the run-up to Minerva's final I-League match of the season, Ranjit Bajaj stopped being Ranjit Bajaj. Instead of the larger-than-life character who wore his heart on his sleeve, he stood in and charted team strategy, settled to a place not in front of the scenes.
He didn't give his usual pre-match lectures, during which he quoted liberally from the Frank Miller film '300'. He took back his guarantee of cash bonuses to his team if they won games, in the manner he had before the East Bengal, Gokulam and Chennai City games. "I went and told Ranjit that the players weren't playing for the ball but were playing thinking about the bonus and cash incentives," team coach Khogen Singh said.
"I had been trying for the last four matches and it wasn't working. So I didn't give them any pep talk before the final. I only told them that they knew what they needed to do," said Bajaj.
Indeed, in the 61st minute of Minerva FC's match -- when tempers frayed on the pitch and Minerva defender Eric Dano got into a shoving contest with Churchill's Onyeama Francis -- it was Bajaj who made an uncharacteristic gesture calling for calm. Minerva simply couldn't afford Dano, already on a yellow card, to be booked out of the match.
Bajaj, who had admitted trying to play mind games when he signed former East Bengal defender Armand Bazi for the sole purpose of trying to troll his former side ahead of the match at Panchkula, also seemed determined to focus on the game at hand. "I made it clear that we weren't going to find out what was happening in the other match," Bajaj said. "No one was to look to the stands or try to ask around. We had to play this match in order to win it."
It went exactly to plan and when the final whistle blew, Bajaj returned to his place in the front of the show, hoisted atop the shoulders of his players.
Watching from the stands, Sukhvinder Singh, the coach of the previous Punjab team to win the national title, spoke of the importance of Minerva winning the I-League title. "Punjab has produced so many great footballers," he said. "I needed to have another champion team again. This victory will give hope to the players of Punjab that they have at team that can compete at the national level."
But he had words of caution too. "It is great that another team from Punjab has risen to the top," he said. "Punjab needs this win. But we need many more teams from Punjab."
For Minerva and Punjab, that isn't the immediate concern. For Bajaj, the win is proof that his model works. "I wanted to show that it is possible to create a team with Indian players and not a lot of money, and still be competitive in the I-League," he said. It remains to be seen though how they carry this vision forward. "We will have proved a point but we can't stop now," he said.
For Minerva, the journey only begins 'here'