Northern India, especially Punjab, has a close-knit relation to the game of football and the “Land of Five Rivers” produced outstanding ball players time and again. Many a Punjab-da-puttar have donned the national colour and earned connoisseurs’ plaudits during their pomp. Even the land with footballers in abundance have suffered huge setback for a considerable time and they were literally gasping in agony to come out of the ignominious phase.
Minerva Academy FC, the cool breeze in the unpleasant ambiance, is nothing but a strong positive vibe against all flaks. Ranjit Bajaj, an ardent football fan himself, represented Chandigarh in bigger stages including Santosh Trophy. Lest we forget, the articulate orator donned the national jersey at U-19 level.
On the brink of creating history, the mastermind seemed utterly calm and composed, albeit he was throughout busy texting and receiving phone calls during the exclusive tete-a-tete session with I-League Media, quite understandable for a person in the like of him who’s not going to throw the towel before triumphing over the Second Division League 2015-16.
Not only Ranjit but his wife Henna Singh, who has gathered enormous management skill having served different organisations throughout her professional career, has joined the Minerva Academy FC management team to deliver her valuable inputs.
2005-15, Minerva Academy took 10 years to participate in Second Division. Hasn’t the hold-up been pretty long?
We didn’t want to hurry it and going haywire. We wanted to be the best in the city, then conquering North India and having achieved these two targets, we targeted to challenge the rest of India in the Second Division League. After Minerva Academy FC won the Senior State Men’s Championship 2015 in Chandigarh, we’re up for Second Division League.
We are not aware of more club owners putting on the team jersey as well. What was your motivation to give it a shot as the goalie?
I have represented Chandigarh at five nationals including two senior nationals (Santosh trophy, one year as captain). I have played in the U-17, U-19 and U-21 nationals, and I have also played in both the Subroto Cup and Durand Cup. I have also represented India at the U-19 level, playing seven matches in the Asian School Games in Malaysia in 1998.
I really wish I could have played in Second Division League, but you know a club owner has to shoulder enormous responsibilities, specifically in the debut season, which would not allow me enough time to practice, train and play.
Punjab is renowned to produce classy ball players since long. Are you mulling over local talents primarily for the Second Division League?
Undoubtedly it’s our prime objective. The main agenda behind starting the club was to promote football in the region. Sandesh Jhingan and Sehnaj Singh both have played for Minerva Academy FC since formative years. Our national team goalie Gurpreet Singh Sandhu and Robin Singh are products of the St. Stephen’s Academy, Chandigarh (Feeder Academy for MAFC) which is run by our Head Coach Surinder Singh. We shall hone the skills and talents of local boys. It’s a two-way traffic where Minerva Academy FC will play for them and they will play for Minerva AFC.
Henna, what drove yourself to join the Minerva Academy FC think tank?
I love football and greatly enjoy the game, so I started following MAFC matches and followed their progress in tournaments that they entered. However, when Minerva Academy FC clinched the Second Division League berth, I joined the team to contribute in the business end to make it possible being a new club with limited resources. Having worked in corporate industry for many years, I strongly feel that I could help lay foundation for the financial, licensing, legal, and personnel and administrative departments for Minerva Academy FC. Our foray into the big stage of Indian Football is very necessary to give a new lease of life to all the football lovers of the region and help the I-League achieve a pan India status.
The who’s who of Indian cricket have joined the football carnival of India since last year. You share a jovial relation with one of the India’s finest cricketers. Is he coming in the fray to motivate the players?
Yes obviously, Minerva Academy Cricket Club are also the state champions of Chandigarh in cricket and are regarded as one of the powerhouses of cricket not only in the region but in the country. Not only my buddy Yuvraj Singh, but eminent cricketers Harbhajan Singh, Gurkeerat Singh Mann and Manpreet Singh Gony are going to promote MAFC through social media and also support from the stands as and when their schedule permits. Moreover, Youth Icon, MTV and Bollywood star Rannvijay Singh Singha is the Club Ambassador and is expected to make appearances during the home or away of matches of MAFC and club events. I share very close relationship with all of them and I would definitely want them to come, meet the players, give their suggestions and inputs on to how to improve the club etc. I want them to be associated with us in such a way that they add value to the club, not only to promote it like a carnival at a superficial level.
Lonestar Kashmir, who debuted last year, almost made it to I-League last season. Are you confident to break the jinx this season?
Lonestar Kashmir made us all proud by performing so well in their debut season and were unlucky not to win the Second Division last year. MAFC’s philosophy is “Play to Win” and we do not believe in playing for participation or experience. We are definitely bidding the win the Second Division League this season as we want to cement the I-League spot.
How much are you confident about your home support?
Even though our home stadium (Guru Nanak Football Stadium) is 90 Kms away from Chandigarh, we are really hopeful. Many fidel and noisy fans are also expected to travel to Ludhiana to watch the matches and we are rooting on the school and college students and local football fans who’d engage through extensive social media promotion.
There is huge difference between state league and Second Division League. Are the lads ready to deal with the pressure?
Yes there certainly is a world of difference between the state league and Second Division League. But, the team has been training under Surinder Singh and Sandeep Singh for past couple of months and we are really hoping for the best. Now the onus is on the players to showcase their talents and churning out the results.
Quite a few Indian clubs have tied up with foreign clubs. Does Minerva Academy FC have any such idea back of the mind?
Hopefully after a good performance this season, MAFC will have the option to secure a tie-up with a foreign club, but again, we don’t want a tie-up just on paper to enhance our brand name. We want to contribute towards the development of real football and footballers in India at grassroots level.
As the first club from Chandigarh to participate in Second Division League, what areas would you wants to explore in the first season itself, off-the-field primarily?
Minerva Academy FC will be working towards further securing and strengthening ties with more local schools and colleges for the development of football in the region and to strengthen the foundation of the club. MAFC will also be focusing on multiplying the football-crowd, fan-base for both 2nd Division league and MAFC.
(Interview & Photo courtesy I-League Media)