Far away from the glitz and glamour of the ISL, an unlikely club which is based in the small township of Panchkula, in Haryana seems to be dominating Indian football at both the senior and the junior levels.
Minerva Punjab are only in their second season in the I-League, but they have shown that they can challenge the traditional “giants”, who have larger resources and fan bases in the football-crazy city of Kolkata.
Currently perched at the top of the I-League, Minerva Punjab are on the verge of becoming the second surprise team in as many seasons to win the competition after Aizawl FC did the same last season.
However, far from the madding crowd of top-division football in India, the Minervans are working their magic in the junior levels as well.
The club’s U-15 side just completed a hat-trick of wins at the Nike Premier Cup, beating DSK Shivajians 4-0 in the final this season.
“We had to work really hard to get here, and I’m so proud of my team today,” said team captain Thoiba Singh. “We are three-time champions, that says a lot about the club’s progress.”
Hailing from Manipur, Thoiba has been at the club for three years already and seems to be developing into the star centre-back that India needs.
In fact, despite being a centre-back, Thoiba, who idolises Real Madrid captain Sergio Ramos, has ended the tournament as the top scorer.
The Minerva U-15 skipper was all praises for his club, saying that the junior players are given some of the best facilities in the country; they also get to learn a lot from the foreign coaches.
There is so much emphasis on youth development at the club that even owner Ranjit Bajaj comes down to interact with the players, who are said to be treated more like his younger brothers.
“He (Bajaj) motivates us a lot. He comes to speak to us before the match, talks to all of us,” says Thoiba. “He even scolds us when we don’t play according to the plan. He basically treats us all like his younger brother.”
Concentration on talent in the lower levels has certainly helped Minerva in the top division, where all their hard work seems to be bearing the fruits.
India’s U-17 football stars like Jeakson Singh and Nongdamba Naorem, who had impressed a lot during the U-17 World Cup last year, have emerged this little club from the northern parts of India.
Will Thoiba also go on to become one of the Indian football stars in the future? Well, while that remains to be seen, this promising youngster is already looking to improve himself, as he aims to make it to one of the junior national team camps next.