Ranjit Bajaj jumped with joy when the referee blew the final whistle at the Don Bosco ground in Fatorda on Friday for two reasons: One, Minerva Punjab FC , his team , were the U-18 champions of India; two by winning the U-18 crown Minerva Punjab had won all the All India football Federation (AIFF) men’s championship titles in one year.
Winning the U-13; the U-15; the U-18; and the I-league title in one season is no easy task. Minerva Punjab FC is the first team in India to do so and could well be the first team in the world because google does not throw any facts to prove the contrary.
At forty , Ranjit has been a witness to football as a player for 36 years and is since the last four years getting a grip of the game as owner.
“I grew up watching football through JCT. Once the club closed down, I began to see a switch in attitudes amongst my colleagues and the youth in Punjab. People with talent in football started taking to drugs and alcohol after JCT had to close. I could not sit back and just watch at what was happening and therefore took the plunge and started Minerva Punjab FC,” admited Ranjit.
“Punjab , which was once the cradle of finest football talent , had suddenly closed off to talent. Being a national player and having represented my country at the junior level, I was pulled towards doing something because as a player I could see the talent that was waiting for a platform to break free and Minerva Punjab was the platform created,” confessed Ranjit.
Running a club is one aspect of football and standing against the administrators of the game is another and Ranjit is having a brush with both.
“There was a time when the AIFF was looking at me as a guy to get rid of. But , they started thinking twice after seeing the results of our youth development programme,” said Ranjit whilst basking in some of the titles his various age group teams have won, over the last four years.
Minerva Punjab began four years and since its inception has won most of the youth tournaments in the country and topped it by winning the I-league last season. “In our first year in the I-league, I was approached by different agents and was offered the best of talent in the country. I took what was the best available and we finished sixth and I decided it was enough because I always believed in giving the locals a chance. So, we started last year with all local talents and finished first.” “I believe a club grows with local talent and my second year proved me right,” argued Ranjit.
Football in India is split between those who are there for titles and those keen on developing the game and Ranjit falls in the latter bracket. “I know there is talent in India. Unfortunately, many people focus on seniors because they want titles. You get titles after you have been able to nurture talent and that is what we do. Football will go forward in India if you have hundred or more Minerva Punjab’s. You cannot develop players at the senior level,” averred Ranjit.
“Like players, we cannot manufacture fans. We have a concept that fans can be developed by throwing in money for players from abroad. Fans come to watch local talent. Local talent brews fans and football is called a beautiful game because it can be played by the poorest,” reasoned Ranjit. “Those who have money have to be able to go to areas where they normally do not,” added Ranjit.
“Teams in ISL today are spending a lot of money on players. Just imagine what they will be capable of doing if they spent that sort of money on the youth of the country. Unfortunately teams in ISL look for immediate results,” opined Ranjit who has a residential academy in a 14 acre campus with over 200 boys.
“This year we have admitted boys who are seven years because my plan is to be able to produce players for the 2030 World Cup,” confessed Ranjit.
Despite his triumphs on the football pitch, Ranjit has found himself on the wrong end of AIFF’s pipe line on a number of occasions. Just a year ago, he was banned for ten years – a ban which was later over turned. He is loved for what he produces on the field and hated for what he talks off the pitch. Yet, it does not bother Ranjit because football is his love.
“You need characters to run football. You need a spark with passion to run football and that passion cannot be stopped. My power comes from the results of my work. You need to be committed for the development of the game and not oneself and that is more than money, in football,” thinks Ranjit.
“India cannot be the number one in football in the world unless you have someone as crazy as me,” said Ranjit whilst explaining how he runs Minerva Punjab on a budget of around Rs 4.5 crores. “We spend around Rs 1.6 crores on youth development and around Rs 1.4 crores on the senior team,” disclosed Ranjit.
“The manner AIFF looks at me and other clubs in India is sad. Suddenly there is a split between those who have money and those who do not and we are seeing a league being run by one individual. This does not happen anywhere in the world and this would not have happened if all the teams in the I-league had stood united when the three teams from Goa quit the I-league. It was a pity I was not in the I-league then. I would have surely quit along with them and asked the others to join because that would have upset the AIFF plans,” admitted Ranjit.
“Public pressure is the main thing. To help something, you cannot kill the other. Money should not be the deciding factor and ten clubs is not enough to run football in India. You need much more than that and more importantly a level playing field for all players,” concluded Ranjit.