I-League 2017/18: One small step for Minerva Punjab, one giant leap for Chandigarh football
In the densely-populated and maddening cauldron that is urban India, the northern city of Chandigarh certainly stands out as an anomaly. Completed in 1960, it is the first planned city in the country after Independence and is rightly nicknamed 'City Beautiful', something residents and visitors will attest to alike.
On the sporting front, Chandigarh has a number of top-level arenas that have held high-profile competitions in cricket, hockey and tennis over the years. And on Wednesday, history was made as the city hosted its first-ever I-League game as Minerva Punjab FC took on Shillong Lajong FC at the Tau Devi Lal Stadium in Panchkula, which is part of the Chandigarh Tricity area.
Despite having a population of just a little over a million, it has produced a number of sporting champions who have made the nation proud over the years. India's sole individual Olympic gold medalist Abhinav Bindra, cricketing icons Kapil Dev and Yuvraj Singh, Indian national football team icons Sandesh Jhingan and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, golf stars such as Jeev Milkha Singh and Shubhankar Sharma - all of these stellar names call Chandigarh their home.
"Biggest day in Chandigarh football history"
Minerva Punjab FC, playing their second season in the I-League, moved to the top of the standings after a narrow 3-2 victory against Shillong Lajong, gaining a two-point lead at the top of the table with a game in hand.
The home side were playing their first top-division match in their own city, having played the whole of last season and the earlier part of this campaign at the Guru Nanak Stadium in Ludhiana.
Speaking exclusively to Sportskeeda after the match, Minerva's team owner Ranjit Bajaj stated, "It is the biggest occasion in the history of Chandigarh football. Once we develop our stadium even more, I'm sure we can go even higher from here."
The match saw a great turnout from local fans and with Kolkata giants East Bengal up next for Minerva, Bajaj expects the numbers to increase. "Today was the city's biggest football match ever and next week, it will be even bigger," he said, before adding, "It was a wonderful turnout for the first day, especially since it was a 2 pm kickoff on a weekday."
Excellent youth system in place
Chandigarh also entered the nation's footballing spotlight last year prior to the FIFA U-17 World Cup, which was held in India. Out of the 21 players who were part of the final squad, a third of them had trained at either Minerva's famed Academy or the famed Chandigarh Football Academy (CFA).
India's sole goalscorer at the historic event, Jeakson Singh, is a Minervan, while Amarjit Singh Kiyam, the team's captain, honed his skills at the CFA before being picked for the national camp.
Apart from these two, keeper Prabhsukhan Gill, defenders Anwar Ali and Sanjiv Stalin, and medios Nongdamba Naorem and Mohammad Shahjahan - all have been churned out by the two previously mentioned institutions.
Incidentally, Lajong's captain against Minerva, Samuel Lalmuanpuia is a CFA graduate himself and was delighted on finally getting to play at the senior level in the city where he spent five years.
"Chandigarh is like a second home to me," he said. "I came here at the age of 11 or 12 and it was an amazing experience training at the CFA. The coaches were very good and have made me the player I am today," gushed the Mizoram-born midfielder.
Minerva in the ISL?
Sportskeeda had earlier reported that Minerva Punjab could be set for a place in the Indian Super League next season after Bajaj made it clear that the club is willing to pay the Rs 15 crore franchise fee, should the opportunity arise. He elaborated further on the matter, explaining the team's chances of actually making the cut.
"Our sponsors (Apollo Tyres) have said they want to have a team in the ISL where their name is a part of the club's official name, like it is now. They are willing to pay the franchise fee only if the same is allowed by the ISL authorities," explained Bajaj.
As far as the other criteria are concerned, Minerva are in good stead. "If we win the league title, we will have certainly proved our credentials and will deserve a place in the ISL on merit," Bajaj said. "Also, there is no other ISL club in the same region - so that is another box ticked."
He admitted that the fee was the biggest hurdle and after the sponsors' assurance, he is confident of making the step up successfully. He said, "As far as our professionalism and social media handling is concerned, we have done well in the last year and I am certain we can take it to the next level from here."
Minerva Punjab have set the I-League alight this season with a string of spectacular performances and have breathed new life into a region bereft of top-quality football. With four home matches left in their remaining five games, they look the favourites for the title and would love to lift the trophy in front of their home fans come March.