A Bhutanese striker who holds his country’s 100m national record, a team that trains at an academy for army aspirants and an owner who has had his run-ins with the law. Minerva Punjab might be an unconventional football club in every sense of the word but they scripted a remarkable underdog story on Thursday by beating Goa’s Churchill Brothers to win the I-League, one of the two premier domestic football competitions, the other one being the Indian Super League.
After a whirlwind season in which the club even reported several match-fixing offers made to its players, Minerva defeated Churchill Brothers 1-0 at Panchkula’s Tau Devi Lal Stadium in a tense season finale that had four teams in contention for the title. Kolkata giants East Bengal and Mohun Bagan along with Manipur-based debutants Neroca were all in with a chance but the chasing pack stood a chance only if Minerva failed to win their final match of the season.
It was the closest India’s top-flight has ever witnessed, however, Minerva ensured there was no twist in the tale after their Ghanaian striker William Opoku scored the only goal of the match in the 16th minute to hand his side a nervy win over Goa’s fallen giants. It took Minerva’s tally to 35 points in the 18-game season, three more than second-placed Neroca and four more than pre-tournament favourites East Bengal and Mohun Bagan. They, in the process, became the first club from north India in 22 years to be crowned the national champions, the last one being JCT Phagwara in 1996-97.
It’s a stunning turn of fortunes for last season’s wooden-spooners, who escaped relegation only because of All India Football Federation’s rule for corporate-backed clubs, which gives them a three-year exemption from facing the chop. Minerva with a budget of approximately Rs 1.5 crore, were once again expected to fight for the scraps while Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, who spent 10 times more than the Punjab side, were widely tipped to win the title. But the team of unknown and rejected players has scripted yet another fairytale story in Indian football after Aizawl FC who the league last year.
Unlike Aizawl, though, Minerva did not enthrall with the brand of football they dished out – their performances have been brawl-ish more than beautiful – but the story of India’s newest champions is unique in its own ways. Before they entered the top division last year, Minerva earned the reputation for being a nursery of football in the north, where the game had hit a dead-end. They have won the under-15 league the last three times, while four players from India’s under-17 World Cup squad last year played at Minerva at some point of their careers.
The club is owned by Ranjit Bajaj, a son of bureaucrats. The 38-year-old doubles up as the team’s manager but on most ocassions, he supersedes the coach Wangkhem Khogen and takes a call on tactical and selection issues. The team’s training facility itself is unconventional for a football club. Unlike most teams that have dedicated grounds, Minerva players train at an academy for army aspirants in a village in the outskirts of Chandigarh.
The players were shown movies, like Al Pacino-starrer Any Given Sunday, for motivation and taken on hikes to the mountains for team building sessions. “It’s not a usual set-up, we know,” Khogen said. “We wouldn’t have won a single match doing the usual things. We did not have the money to buy the best players so we had to try something different to win the league.”
The club had an eclectic mix of players scouted from countries like Estonia, Ghana and Nepal apart from the local ones. But they relied heavily on a shy, unassuming Bhutanese player, Chencho Gyeltshen.
Chencho holds the country’s 100m national record, clocking 11.3 seconds, and almost competed in the 2012 Indoor World Championships in Turkey. He received a wildcard entry for the 60m dash, a race eventually won by former Olympic gold medallist Justin Gatlin, but he could not reach the competition venue in time because of a delayed flight.
That near miss is just one of the several coincidences that led to him becoming Bhutan’s first – and so far, the only – professional footballer but his exploits on the football field are no more restricted to the Buddhist Kingdom. When he came to India, Chencho was rejected by some of the top clubs, including Mohun Bagan. Today, the sprinter-turned-striker is the unlikely hero of an unlikely champion.