Chandigarh-based football outfit Minerva Academy FC, who are the first team to qualify for the AIFF 2nd Divison I-League from the city, made their debut on the national scene last season (2015-16) and have recently applied to be part of the 2017 I-League campaign. They had a dream debut season where they finished runners-up in the second tier behind Dempo SC.
Relegated Aizawl FC have been reinstated in the I-League for the upcoming season and Dempo have been promoted as champions of the second division. However, Minerva have been denied promotion to the I-league, which has been known to promote two teams to the top tier until the last few years. India’s top tier league will have 12 teams next year and the All India Football Federation (AIFF) is considering Minerva for the I-league as they are the only team from the region.
If Minerva AFC do get a chance to play, big time football will return to Punjab after a lapse of ten years since JCT withdrew from I-league in 2007. In the history of the National Football League that started in 1997 and the I-League which commenced in 2007-08, three teams from Punjab – namely JCT, Border Security Force and Punjab Police have appeared. So if Minerva are to feature in the 2017 I-League, it will certainly be a new lease of life for football in the state.
AIFF President Praful Patel has mentioned on various occasions that the goal of the AIFF is to include more states into the top division and make it a pan-India League. The inclusion of Minerva into the I-League will achieve exactly that. Former India skipper Baichung Bhutia has also shown his support for bringing the team into the I-league. He said, “The AIFF should consider bringing in Minerva Academy FC from Punjab. The state has not been represented in the I-League since JCT closed shop. So, Minerva's inclusion could be a good move.”
The Indian National football team has seen many players from Punjab come forward in recent years, like Sandesh Jhingan of Kerala Blasters, Sehnaj Singh of Mumbai City FC and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, who plies his trade in the Norwegian top division with Stabaek FC and is also the first Indian player to captain a European football side.
CEO and founder of Minerva AFC Ranjit Bajaj said, “Players from Punjab who are playing for other top clubs in different states often contact us and express their desire to play for Minerva. They are even willing to take a pay cut just to be closer to home. But Minerva’s philosophy is to bring forward young talent from the region and give them a chance to shine on the national stage, which had been denied till now.”
Minerva are one of the few clubs in the country to have a fully functional residential youth development program with over 100 trainees. They were also crowned national champions in their debut season (2015-16) of the AIFF U-15 Youth League, beating Royal Wahingdoh in the finals held in Goa after remaining unbeaten throughout the tournament.
The club also added another feather in its cap by becoming the only team from Chandigarh to ever participate in the prestigious Durand Cup this year, where they beat I-League side DSK Shivajians.
In a state where hockey and kabaddi dominate proceedings, there is now a chance for football to make a place for itself. Bringing Minerva into the I-league will surely be a boon for the sport in Punjab and at the same time, it will also help in expanding the sport in the northern parts of the country.