Army of champions: Deconstructing the Minerva fairy-tale
At first, Kassim Aidara thought he had the wrong location. Aidara had just signed with I-League club Minerva Punjab FC. Having played for over a decade in Europe, it was a gamble on Aidara's part, but a necessary one if he had to get a foothold in the Indian football scene.
When he arrived at the address he'd been given for his club, in the village of Daon along the Chandigarh-Mohali highway, he was confused by what he saw.
Two rifle-bearing guards, who seemed to have been pulled out of Chandigarh's famous rock garden, barred the entrance to the academy. Inside, scores of youngsters climbed ropes and were yelled at by drill instructors as they attempted to cross military obstacles. There were rows of residential barracks in the far corner.
"I didn't know they had a military academy. I thought I was at the wrong place. You see military, but where is the football?," Aidara recalls wondering.
As it turns out, there was plenty of football too. In the months that followed, Aidara would captain Minerva to the I-League title. On Thursday, when they sealed the title in what was only their second season in the top flight, the side would become the first team from North India to ever win the I-League and only the second since JCT to win the national football league.
Back when he first arrived though, Aidara could be forgiven for thinking what he did.
The Minerva Academy has been around since 1955, a military training academy that coaches aspirants for the country's defense services exams. They claim to have produced over 40,000 officers for the Indian Army. Although Minerva have enjoyed success at the age group levels, cracking the I-League - officially India's top football league - was proving to be a different task. Minerva's debut attempt last year ended poorly as they finished ninth out of 10 teams. Aidara's first opinions weren't much more charitable: "I really didn't see a team that could play in the I-League."
Rakshit Dagar, who kept goal for eight matches this season, shared that sentiment at the start. "I didn't think we were going to win either," he says. One member of the team, though, was insistent it could be done. "I remember the first day that I was with the team, Ranjit was telling me he wanted to win the league. As a player I didn't believe it but he was insistent," Dagar recalls.
The story of Minerva's season is inseparable from that of their owner Ranjit Bajaj. The 38-year-old is a polarising figure in the Indian footballing community. For some, Bajaj is a Howard Roark figure, a pulling-himself-up-by-the-bootstraps sort of guy who created a champion football team by sheer force of will. Others find strong parallels to the obsessive Colonel Kurtz and his desire to make a perfect army and create order in the middle of nowhere.
While Bajaj doesn't have a bust of the crazy character from Apocalypse Now, his office has a bunch of miniature military vehicle models as well as a figurine of Marlon Brando in his role as the Godfather.
Much of the criticism leveled Bajaj's way is justified. His past is chequered with a host of criminal cases including assault and kidnap. He is the stereotypical spoiled son of influential parents - both his mother and father were senior officers in the Chandigarh administration.
Bajaj is candid about his past. "I really was an a***** back then," he says. "At one point, I had 26 cases against me in seven different states. Don't worry, there were no murder or rape cases. I ran a company that retrieved cars and if you couldn't pay your loans, you would get the crap beaten out of you. That's illegal now but it was a horrible thing to do."
It was as Bajaj says, "the crazy phase" of his life. It was one in which Bajaj, who once represented India in the Asian School's Championships, lost touch with the sport. Bajaj likes to think he has changed following the intervention of his girlfriend and now wife, Henna, who helps him run the club. "I became a lot more stable after my marriage five years ago. I got into my passion for football once again," he says.
At 35, Bajaj attempted to qualify for the Chandigarh state football team once again, which he did. But he knew his options as a player were limited. "I knew I could never play for India. But I could definitely do something for Indian football," says Bajaj, who opened up Minerva FC that year.
In the short time since it started running, the Minerva's academy has become a key part of the Indian football landscape. The club has won the U-15 I-League for two straight years now. Several members of the Minerva FC age group team were part of the Indian team that competed at the U-17 World cup. "Minerva, home to the first Indian goal scored in a FIFA world event," a banner at Minerva's final I-League game read, referring to the header scored by Jeakson Singh at the World Cup.
Success in the I-League, though, was harder to come by. Bajaj says he was simply unprepared to run a team in the initial days, overspending on salaries with money he didn't have. "I had hired players on a salary of one lakh a month each, simply because I didn't know any better," he says.
Bajaj denies rumors that he had sold some of his land to pay for the expenses. "That land is the only thing I have with which to run this club. If I didn't have the land, I wouldn't be able to run the club either. Because of the Minerva Academy, I have a place for my boys to stay. Because of the canteen I can feed them as well," he says. Instead, Bajaj got a loan against his father's IAS provident fund.
Bajaj continues to run the club in an unorthodox manner. He makes few excuses for it. "A sane person cannot do what I am doing. You need to be a crazy, crazy person," he says. Unlike other clubs which compete to hire the best quality players, Bajaj promises them the very opposite. Unlike what the Brando figurine in his office would say, he made the players an offer they should have logically refused. Instead, most players took a pay cut after being given the guarantee that they will get playing time which they can leverage to then move to a richer team.
"I had offers from ISL clubs this year too. But I knew I would be sitting on the bench. Ranjit said he would give me a chance to play. A footballer wants to play. You want to be on the field. Even if you are making mistakes, you want to be out there. If a player knows he can play on the field, the other teams also notice," Dagar says.
The fact that the team had no star players at the very outset worked in their favour. "The other teams have big stars and those guys throw tantrums. Our team has few stars so the bonding was better," says defender Sukhdev Singh.
That didn't mean that Bajaj compromised on skill. "I didn't want to get players who were old and were just playing for a paycheque. I wanted players who wanted to use this as an opportunity to make a name for themselves and then move on," he says.
Bajaj has been deeply involved in the team's functioning, though it took him some time till everything fell into place. Colm Toal, the highly regarded youth coach, was fired shortly after he was appointed and even his replacement Surinder Singh barely survived the season. Spaniard Juan Luiz Herrera was let go in the pre season, while his replacement, Sachin Badhade also had to step aside.
Enter Khogen Singh. The Manipuri coach had played for Air India and then Vasco in the 1990s before switching to a coaching career. Khogen, who had originally joined Minerva as a youth development coach, found himself fast tracked rather unexpectedly to the senior squad.
Khogen learned his job was not just about managing the players but sometimes even the overenthusiastic owner. "Ranjit is a very passionate and involved owner. This is a good thing. But sometimes what you want and what the team can do are very different," he says.
Ahead of one game at Panchkula's Tau Devi Lal stadium, Bajaj got involved in what appeared a heated discussion regarding a set piece plan. Bajaj's complicated plan involved a single player pushing the wall in order to create space for the free kick. "For a single player to do that, you need a lot of strength that the players simply didn't have," Khogen remembers.
And while to his credit, Bajaj deferred to the coach on this occasion, things didn't always go to plan. Khogen recalls one incident when the team director was furious when the players returned from a gym session. "I was unfamiliar with the city. So when I saw that one road was blocked I had the team bus return back. Of course Ranjit was very angry. And then we went again with a different route," he says.
Also see: Rewind: I-League's dramatic final day
Besides just stories of Bajaj's short temper, there are also rumours of delayed payments and serious allegations of abusive behavior towards younger players and the use of forged signatures. Bajaj is aware of the charges but counterclaims that his players were legitimately signed and that he followed the rules for signing junior players as they were then. The problem, he says, came when players he had given "on good faith" to the AIFF Academy for national duty were traded to ISL clubs.
"The AIFF screwed me over on a technicality. The first thing I do is sign juniors on a professional contract now," he says.
For a club and a director with such serious claims against him, the players - at least those with him this season-are unapologetically loyal. "Ranjit is more than a team owner. He is like a brother to us," Aidara says.
They seem aware about the money woes too. Dagar, who represented DSK Shivajians last season, says while the academy doesn't have much spit and polish, its footballing credentials are never in question.
"It's two different aspects. DSK is a big company and so spending so much money is not a big difference. With this guy it is different. He isn't a big business man, so what he is spending is what he has. If you are earning one crore, you can't spend 70-80 lakhs. Some people have the will to spend their profit but Ranjit has the will to spend his earning, not his profit. Spending on the U-13 and U-15 teams takes a lot of courage. If I was in his place, I could never do that," Dagar says.
Indeed, the team which already has the lowest salaries in the league, follows a very peculiarly North Indian custom of 'jugaad' or trying to do things at the lowest possible price. Bajaj taps his impressive list of contacts at every moment he can. The team's physio is Sagar Dewan, who has trained both the Punjab Ranji team, as well as golfer Shubhankar Sharma, who will play in the USA Masters. A Memorandum of Understanding is likely to be signed with Olympic gold medalist Abhinav Bindra's scientific training centre. There are training hacks too. "At our first training session, we didn't have cones. So we used bricks instead," Dagar says.
Despite the stop gap measures, Bajaj says he has invested in what he felt his team needed for success. Unlike the previous season when the team came together the week before the league, Minerva have been playing as a team three months ahead of the league. Players train and play in vests that record the intensity of their sprints. While Bajaj's side has never been the most fun to watch, they have more than made up for it with their intensity and fitness - not a single player was lost due to injury this season.
While Minerva surprised many by taking an early lead in the league and then holding on to it, the club continued to find itself in controversy. Bajaj first took to twitter claiming his side were targeted by fixing approaches. After this was first dismissed as attention seeking behavior, he would reiterate those claims a day before the end of the league, directly insinuating that rival clubs were making approaches to his players.
"I don't think there were serious approaches. I think they were just people trying to distract the players," coach Khogen says. It wasn't the only instance of dirty tricks being played. Bajaj recounts how after a game against one of the big city clubs, he found that someone had urinated in the ice baths. "I had to clean it up myself," he says. He doesn't consider this beneath him. "I am a guy who can run a team because of the circumstances and luck going his way. But I never look at myself as an owner. I am a team member and do everything that players do, starting with cleaning the toilet."
The results of course have been worth it. Whether Minerva's title triumph was a fluke is yet to be determined. Bajaj expects to lose most of his players although having signed contracts that guarantees him 25% of their next signing fees, he is hopeful of creating a sustainable model of running a club. "The last season when we finished ninth, I lost 14 players to the ISL. It's going to be the same this time," he admits.
He's confident of riding it out though. "There's no shortage of players coming to Minerva. I don't know if I will find another player like Chencho but there will be others. I looked at 1380 players and 350 hours of footage before I settled on him. I know my plan has worked. I know how to create a winning team now. More importantly it lets others believe in the plan."
The hope is that the 'others' include local players too. "It's a very big thing that a club from Punjab is part of the league. After JCT closed down, for a long time it felt like there is nothing left for football in this region," says Sukhdev. For the moment, that too is up in the air.
Sukhvinder Singh, coach of the JCT side that won the National Football title in 1996, says Minerva still have a long way to go before they establish themselves as a big club. "JCT was very popular. We would get crowds no matter where we were in India and Punjab was another thing altogether. Minerva still needs to be able to draw those crowds," he says.
Bajaj, though, expects the club's title winning run to help in boosting the popularity of football in the region. "We have five players from Punjab in the team but we need even more. Right now we have five players in our first team and we also have three player from right here in Daon in our U-13 team. We will have more in the future," he says.
Aidara, meanwhile, is yet to decide whether he will be part of that future. At the end of the season, when he was still coming to terms with what his side had achieved, he was certain about one thing at least. "They definitely know football here," he says.