Stone-carved statues of soldiers with laser rifles pointing at him wasn’t the welcome Kassim Aidara was expecting at his new club, Minerva Punjab. The sight of young men and women crawling through the trenches only added to the wariness of the Hamburg-born Senegalese midfielder. “I thought I was joining a football club!” he says. “This did not look like one.”
It certainly did not. This isn’t your usual state-of-the-art facility with sprawling football fields and cutting-edge technology where stars of tomorrow are produced. Instead, the assembly-line of players from Minerva have been nurtured at an academy in a tiny village on the outskirts of Chandigarh.
It’s a quaint place, surrounded by farmland and cattle. A narrow dirt road enveloped by towering trees separates the hostels and the main academy complex. In the background, you can see two un-utilised goal-posts on a barren land, which is a farm converted into a football field. Along the route, there’s a dog shelter which is home to 48 rescued mongrels. Next to it is a snake house where army trainees are taught how to deal with the serpents.
Nothing about Minerva Punjab feels like a football club because it actually isn’t. In fact, the home of Minerva, who won the I-League title on Thursday, is a training institute for Army aspirants. Football, as is the case in the rest of North India, was an afterthought here.
Not anymore, though.
To understand the magnitude of Minerva’s achievement, it’s essential to first realise the mess football in this region has been in. Despite routinely feeding players to the national team, there is no organized football set-up in the North. Unlike Kolkata, Goa, North East, Maharashtra, Karnataka or Kerala, there is no organized league in any of the states and the infrastructure is almost non-existent.
The last time a club from this region won the championship was in 1996-97, when Sukhwinder Singh-coached JCT won the inaugural National Football League. Since JCT shut shop seven years ago, whatever little football activity took place in the north also came to a virtual standstill. There’s no eco-system for the sport at all. But Minerva swam against the tide, and defeated teams from traditional footballing hotbeds in a photo-finish.
There is nothing ordinary about their extra-ordinary achievement. This is a club where wannabe footballers share space with future army officers. It’s a team of unknown players, which in absence of local heroes, rely on pop culture for inspiration. And a place where players are made to undergo training drills that border on being masochistic.
Everything about India’s most unexpected champions is unconventional. And it starts with their owner.
“I was the biggest a**h*** known to mankind, man.”
It’s a mildly cold evening in Chandigarh. Ranjit Bajaj pours steaming hot black coffee from a vacuum flask as he opens up about a phase of life when, he candidly admits, ‘all morals go down the drain.’
Bajaj is Minerva’s brat-ish owner. The 39-year-old has a chequered past — he’s had multiple run-ins with the law, set up and shut down two businesses, appeared as a contestant on MTV’s reality show Roadies and boasts of his proximity with several cricketers from Punjab and Roadies host Ranvijay Singha, who later became one of Minerva’s promoters.
Bajaj, the son of IAS officers B R Bajaj and Rupen Deol Bajaj, inherited the 14-acre land on which the academy has been built by his grandfather in 1955. His office, inside one of the ‘barracks’, is an intriguing set-up – a giant Indian flag hangs over the chair; on the table in front of him lays the ‘intel’ on his opponents East Bengal, next to it is a jar of dog chews, a copy of the latest edition of ‘Employment News’ and a miniature model of Marlon Brando in his Godfather avatar. He just smiles when asked if the statue is a reminder of his own past.
Bajaj’s story begins in the late 1990s, when he claims he was among Punjab’s most promising footballers. “I was in the India under-19 team that was captained by Bijen Singh and a regular for the state team. At that time, it was all about sports for me,” he says.
Before his career could even take shape, Bajaj quit playing and moved to London, where he pursued business studies. To support his education, he took up a part-time job. That’s when it all started going downhill. “Just by working part time, I started making more money than both my IAS parents put together and that made my brain go haywire. Only thing that mattered to me was profit because of the way they make you study. That means your morals go down the drain,” Bajaj says.
He returned to Chandigarh and took a first jab at running a business – a ‘car recovery’ venture – with ‘a couple of friends.’ Not all his means were polite and bust-ups were common. “It’s a horrible thing to do,” he admits now.
Bajaj moved on and opened a sports bar-cum-night club in Chandigarh in partnership with an Indian cricketer. But the drunken brawls at the club started to make headlines. “Every time there was a fight there, it wasn’t about the fight – it was ‘Ranjit Bajaj’s night club has a fight’,” he says. “At one time, I had 26 cases against me in seven different states. There was no murder. Yeh maar-peetai waale cases saare,” he says.
His parents urged him to leave the city but Bajaj refused. “That’s what cowards do,” he says. “So one day, eight or nine years ago, I looked in the mirror and told myself, ‘today is the first day for rest of your life.’”
Bajaj found refuge in his two biggest obsessions – defence forces and football. They were combined in such unique ways that it sets Minerva apart from all other clubs in the country. In 2012, Bajaj and his wife Hena established a centre to prepare young aspirants for the written exam for defence forces in addition to the already-functional SSB wing. Thrice a week, Bajaj conducts a three-hour ‘motivation lecture’ for the army aspirants and has hired professionals to prepare them for other areas.
The revenue generated from the written wing, roughly Rs 1.4 crore, is directly invested in the first team, Bajaj says. “The reason we are being able to run football programmes is because of this (defence entrance) academy. The budget is so low because of this. I don’t have to pay for the food and the stay, other than for the seniors, who live in rented houses. That would’ve doubled my budget. So the money I save is being put in my junior programme,” Bajaj says.
The junior programme is where Minerva’s real success lies. The football academy has been in existence on paper since 2005 but it was only after JCT scaled down their operations in 2011 that they ramped up their own. According to the figures provided by the club, out of the 90 trainees at the club in the last three years, 33 have gone on to play for various India international teams – starting with the age-group sides to the senior national team.
The club’s scouts, which includes Bajaj, pick players most of them from the North East and Jharkhand through selection trials. These players are provided meals and accommodation at the barrack-styled houses for free. The sole-minded attention on the youth system has reflected in the manner in which they’ve dominated the country’s age-group tournaments – Minerva are the only team to win the under-15 I-League three times in a row and four of their academy players were a part of India’s squad at last year’s under-17 World Cup.
Buoyed by the junior team’s success, Minerva made an ambitious move to enter the I-League. They entered the second division two years ago and finished second. Last year, the All India Football Federation was trying to induct teams in the I-League after the Goan clubs withdrew, alleging that the federation did not have proper roadmap for Indian football.
The AIFF’s deal was straightforward – on providing a bank guarantee of Rs 100 crore and pledging to spend Rs 15 crore on youth development over the next five years, a team could get direct entry in the I-League. “I didn’t have that kind of money. So I showed them the (academy) land. It is spread over 14 acres and has a market value of Rs 4 crore per acre. I showed the 4 acres, which have been converted into a football facility. I told them I already spent the amount that you want me to spend in the next 5 years,” Bajaj says.
The AIFF agreed, partly because they were desperate to include teams so that they could conduct the league, and also gave them exemption from relegation. So just like that, Minerva were in the big league. But any hopes of replicating the success from the junior level were quickly wiped out. They were out of their depth and finished their debut season in the relegation zone – surviving the drop only because of the deal with the AIFF.
The team management had to ring in changes.
By the time the new season began, almost everything from the previous team had been replaced, including the coaches and even the club’s philosophy.
Bajaj likes to stay in control. He practically dictates every technical aspect — which player will start the game, how the team will play, what set-piece routine should be followed and so on. On match-days, he sits in the dugout, having registered himself as the team manager. It’s virtually undermining the coach’s position, and he knows that.
Last year, the team’s Spanish coach Juan Luis Perez Herrera parted ways because of this very reason. “There were problems because of this with the previous coach. He just did not understand. I made sure I got coaches who understand they are nothing right now and have all to prove,” says Bajaj.
So the preparations for the new season started with the hunt for a new coach, who would play by the owners’ rules. And Thangjam Khogen had no problems with that. “It’s a bit different here but Ranjit is passionate about the game. It’s okay if he has a say,” Khogen says, carefully choosing his words.
After he got his coach, Bajaj began the laborious task of rebuilding his side. “I scouted 1,380 foreigners and watched around 350 hours of videos to select my five international players,” he says. The plan was to target players who were looking for an entry into the Indian market as they would come cheaper than the already established ones. The domestic players were recruited as per the advice of former Air India coach Bimal Ghosh, considered to be one of the shrewdest talent spotters in the country.
“Once we had all the players,” Khogen says, “our focus was to improve their fitness and ensure they are in a happy frame of mind. We did not have the best talents because of our budget constraints so our only hope was to have a squad that would out-last our opponents.”
The basic criterion to get into the playing XI, irrespective of how talented a player was, was to have a score of 20 in the yo-yo test. Kassim, the Senegalese midfielder, failed the fitness test before the start of the season and was given one month to prove himself, which he eventually did. Ghanaian forward William Opoku, the scorer of the goal that won Minerva the title, was dropped from the second match of the season because his yo-yo test results were below the score of 20.
The fitness levels were attained using several cross-fit drills while at training, practice cones were replaced with bricks so that the players would lift their legs properly while running. “We told the players ‘you stop only when you puke’. Not before that,” Bajaj says.
The rigorous work-out sessions were balanced with movie screenings and pasta parties on every match eve. “We are a rag-tag team so we wanted to prove that if you are fit and dedicated enough, you can win. Eleven motivated players are better than one big individual,” says Gagandeep Bali, the team’s highest Indian goal-scorer.
With the cream of Indian footballers opting for the cash-rich Indian Super League, the quality of players in the I-League was more or less even. Ultimately, Minerva’s superior fitness levels proved to be the difference. They had the rival teams breathing down their necks but Minerva never lost steam, sprinting across the finish line.
They were not pretty to watch, like Aizawl were. Their style had the brashness that stereotypes North Indian clubs. But with the I-League trophy sitting pretty in his cabinet, Bajaj couldn’t care less.
“If this success wouldn’t have come then people wouldn’t have believed in my model. A lot of factors have come together at the right time, just like it did for Aizawl,” Bajaj says. “We may not look like a football club. But we surely are one – no one can say otherwise now.”