Unlikely Fairytale In I-League

I-League Title going to Chandigarh-based Minerva FC Club leaving all favorites behind has helped Football spread its wings outside Kolkata, Goa and the North Eastern states of India

By Adarsh Vinay

Ranjit Bajaj is a man who believes in miracles. And when it came to whether his team, Minerva Punjab, had an outside chance of winning the I-League, he had only to look at what Aizawl FC had done the season before. He knew that he had no chance of beating the Kolkata clubs financially, so he decided to play it smart.

Bajaj has vehemently opposed the AIFF’s rule that allows each I-League team to have 6 foreigners and play as many as 5 in every match. This means that the teams that can recruit the best foreigners inadvertently have the upper hand. When the AIFF refused to budge, Bajaj realized that the only chance his team had was to recruit smartly.

The Chandigarh-based club has a fantastic academy and a pretty well-defined scouting network. Bajaj got in touch with everyone he knew in a bid to discover unknown talent and that’s when he heard of Chencho Gyeltshen. The Bhutanese winger had proven his mettle in his home country as well as Bangladesh and Thailand, but he still hadn’t managed to break into the Indian football scene. He had faced rejections at both Mohun Bagan and East Bengal so when the offer came to play for Minerva, he readily snapped it up.

Other meaningful additions were also made to the squad. William Opoku Asiedu joined from the Middlesbrough U-23 squad while the experienced 30-year-old Kassim Aidara who was plying his trade in the second divisions of Germany and France was signed up as a free agent. 

Having seen his side defy all the odds and lift the title, Minerva team owner Bajaj reflected on everything they had to sacrifice to get to this point, “We had to take loans. But today’s win vindicates our point that a team can win with local talent. Our sponsor came in much later. It’s a team victory, everyone contributed.”

Chencho repaid Bajaj’s faith, scoring 7 goals for his side. He was the main man for Minerva and he thanked Bajaj for having faith in him when no one else did. “I think I have been lucky to be in the right place at the right time. He (Bajaj) is the one who always wants me to move up. He knows my capability and he always encourages me to move up and I like that. Any athlete will. For me, he’s the main guy,” said Chencho.

The 21-year-old will take a lot of satisfaction from the fact that he proved his detractors long. He made it count, especially against the Kolkata giants who had rejected him, scoring one against East Bengal and twice against Mohun Bagan.

The two Kolkata clubs meanwhile are in dire need of inspiration. In the 11 seasons of the National Football League, they won 6 titles between them. But since the inception of the I-League in 2007, Bagan have won the league just once while East Bengal are still waiting to do so. Both of them operate on a budget that is around Rs10 crores per season. Their financial might allows them to replace foreigners who are injured or out of form midway through the season but as was evident this time, money alone cannot win titles.

East Bengal had also roped in the successful Aizawl coach Khalid Jamil along with players like Laldanmawia Ralte, Lalramchullova, Brandon Vanlalremdika and Syrian midfielder Mahmoud Al-Amnah. The Syrian reportedly earns Rs60 lakhs per annum while Chencho gets just Rs4. After Minerva’s success, the Kolkata clubs will be hovering around the champions to sign their best players and it remains to be seen if they can hold on to them. But as was evident from East Bengal’s performance this season, signing successful players and coaches does not guarantee success. Their gameplan lacked the intensity of Minerva or runners up Neroca FC who did well to come agonizingly close in their first season in I-League.

Overall, the I-League attendance stats look promising as there was a 58 percent increase from last season. The average attendance this season was 10,210 in a match as opposed to 6500 last time out. Manipur’s Neroca FC had an average attendance of 24,494 and even a record attendance of 35,285 in a single match. These are promising numbers as far as football in India is concerned, especially since the I-League is competing against the riches of the ISL.

Another feather in Minerva’s cap was their success despite having to send 3 of their academy graduates on loan to Indian Arrows. Anwar Ali, Jeakson Singh and Nongdamba Naorem all played in the Under-17 World Cup and thus were part of the Arrows set up, but the club managed without them.   

Minerva coach Khogen Singh was also very pleased with his team’s achievement. “I am very happy. I cannot express (in words). The success is a result of team work. We spent a lot of time in analysing our opponent’s strengths and weaknesses.”

On a personal front too, this title was a much-needed elixir: “As a player when I played for Air India, I never got the taste of being a champion. This is the first time in my life, I have become a champion. It means a lot.”

But never the one to rest on his laurels, Khogen is already looking ahead. “We will be participating in the Super Cup. Then only we can find out the true champion of India. I think there are not much difference in ISL and I-League teams. I think the I-League is more competitive. There is not much difference in the standard of games in these leagues. In Super Cup, we will have to prove that I-League teams are at par even though they are built on low budgets.”

The Super Cup commences at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar at the end of this month. Needless to say, Minerva will not be starting as favourites. But then again, they didn’t start as favourites in the I-League either but they did finish as champions!