Secondary in status, but primary in unearthing talent

Minerva Punjab FC, a team of greenhorns and rejected seniors, bests some of the top sides in the country. The success largely reflects the investments the club has made in its grassroots development programme.

On top: The players of Minerva Punjab FC celebrate after winning the I-League 2017-18.   -  AIFF

What emerges from the meteoric rise of Minerva Punjab FC is the conviction that the I-League is still the tournament that is the life blood of club football in India. Despite being reduced to a secondary event by decisions that have strangely gone beyond the control of the AIFF (All India Football Federation), the I-League has succeeded in bringing cheer to the fans, primarily because of its ability to churn out new talents.

Over the past two and a half decades, Indian football has moved from an amateurish set-up to a professional one, and the clubs blended in with the constant tutoring and persuasion at the behest of the world body, FIFA. Many clubs are still to imbibe the essence of professionalism, but it is more due to their incapacity to transform themselves from a corporate set-up to community-oriented entities.

Minerva Punjab’s success largely reflects the investments the club has made in its grassroots development programme. That perhaps was the benefit of starting as a football academy in Chandigarh, where it nurtured the talent scouted from the hinterland. The academy’s decision to start a football team was a natural progression, and Minerva Punjab tasted success in the second year of its promotion to the elite stage of the I-League. The advantage of absorbing some of the talents from its own academy gave the team the edge.

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There is a strange apathy among clubs in having their own academies. They are content exhausting their seasonal budget in purchasing players while giving youth development the go-by.

This is one area where most football clubs in the country are far behind. Even the traditionally powerful clubs like East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, who have fan bases running into millions, are yet to set up an academy. One of them is over a century old, while the other is only a couple of years from making the mark. Both East Bengal and Mohun Bagan have suffered as a result of this, failing to put together a team that can consistently perform at the top level.

Mohun Bagan lifted the I-League in 2015 to end a 13-year title drought since it last won the National Football League crown. East Bengal, which last won the NFL in 2004, is yet to realise its I-League dreams.

Looking to replicate the success of Aizawl FC, the first club from North-East to win the I-League crown (in 2017), East Bengal secured the services of the Aizawl coach, Khalid Jamil, and a few players from the I-League champion side. Jamil, however, failed to bring home the crown, as East Bengal faltered in the later stages of the tournament, even though it had quite a few opportunities to overtake Minerva Punjab.

East Bengal also made quite a few wrong decisions in picking up foreign recruits whom they kept changing all through the season. Unlike many other sides that could not get the services of good Indian players, East Bengal retained a few names like Arnab Mondal, Kevin Lobo, Gurwinder Singh and Mohammad Rafique, who shunned the ISL draft. The team, though, failed to get into a rhythm as it kept changing its foreign players.

Mohun Bagan, runner-up to Bengaluru FC in 2015-16, retained head coach Sanjoy Sen, but lost some of its players to the ISL draft. However, unlike East Bengal, Mohun Bagan did a good job of selecting foreign players, but injuries to Haitian player Sony Norde and Japanese midfielder Yuta Konowaki upset the rhythm that the team had gained midway through the season. This cost Sen his job, as Mohun Bagan slowly drifted away from the title race.

There was barely any Goan flavour in the I-League. In the absence of clubs like Dempo SC, Salgaocar SC and Sporting Clube de Goa, Churchill Brothers was the sole representative of one of the most potent footballing addresses in the country.

The absence of community-supported clubs — apart from Mohun Bagan and East Bengal — is the bane of Indian club football. And hardly any step has been taken to reorient the sport in the country. Unfortunately, Churchill Brothers failed to escape the drop to Second Division, which meant the exit of the last Goan club from the League.

Minerva Punjab’s success, in a way, was a throwback to the times when Punjab contributed in a big way to Indian football. The first National League title in 1996-97 was won by JCT Mills, Phagwara.

Much like what happened to Aizawl FC, the champion in 2016-17, Minerva Punjab escaped the drop in its debut season (2016-17), thanks to the AIFF ruling that protected the newly-introduced, corporate-backed clubs. Aizawl FC too suffered a similar plight when it made its debut (2015-16) before winning the title in its second season.

Also read: Four seasons of ISL: A few gains, but more to be done

That the fear of a fall helps to generate an extraordinary will to succeed was proved once again in the country’s top league. This is perhaps the reason why the I-League continues to enjoy the patronage of the FIFA and the continental body, the AFC. Unlike the ISL, which is a closed tournament without any relegation, the I-League has galvanised the competition in a big way.

The competition in the 2017-18 I-League was intense until the final round, with four teams in contention for the title. Minerva Punjab did well to win 1-0 against Churchill Brothers. As it happened with Aizawl FC last season, it was a fairytale ending for Minerva Punjab, as the team was hardly in the reckoning at the start of the tournament.

While bringing the top club honour back to Punjab after a gap of 22 years, Minerva Punjab also ensured that performances cannot be determined by the money spent in building up the team. With a budget of around Rs. 1.5 crore, Minerva Punjab may have been one of the teams spending the least on itself, but the investment was good enough to motivate the players to pull off one win after another. Players like the Bhutanese forward, Chencho Gyeltshen, Akashdeep Singh and Sukhdev Singh became the heroes of the triumph, which many feel will revive the fortunes of the sport in the North Indian state that once boasted international stars such as Jarnail Singh and Inder Singh among others.

For the Minerva Punjab FC coach, Khogen Singh, the joy of winning was much more, as he guided a team of greenhorns and rejected seniors to beat some of the best sides in the country.

Memorable first season: NEROCA FC players celebrate after holding East Bengal to a 1-1 draw in their final match of the I-League. The team from Imphal overturned all the predictions to finish second, ahead of the Kolkata giant.   -  AIFF

 

“In my opinion, the I-League is more competitive. There has been a lot of close matches showing that there is not much difference in the standard of the games in the tournament,” Khogen Singh said after his team lifted the title, pushing NEROCA FC, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal to second, third and fourth positions.

Another team that overturned all the predictions was NEROCA FC. The Imphal-based side made one of the most notable debuts, finishing runner-up ahead of the Kolkata giants. NEROCA had nine clean sheets in all, and impressed everyone with its performance.

Coach Gift Raikhan’s tactical ability came in for a lot of praise, as he inspired NEROCA to some outstanding performances and make its debut in the I-League a memorable one.