Minerva Punjab’s fairytale run to capture the I-League title in their maiden season in the top-flight has captured the imagination of every Indian football lover. What was even more impressive in Minerva’s title win was the fact that it was achieved on a shoe-string budget compared to the dominant and established forces in the league, and with a squad brimming with youngsters brought up through the academy.
One such 20-year-old is Kamalpreet Singh, the right-back who was a constant in the Punjab side’s dream campaign. He played a part in all 18 games played by the Ranjit Bajaj-owned side, starting in all but two of them.
One of the many youngsters from Minerva who caught the eye this season, Kamalpreet, or ‘Ricka’ as he called by his team-mates, was not a totally unknown quantity before the start of the season. Having been selected by the All India Football Academy (AIFF) Elite Academy as a 15-year-old, the right-back rose through the ranks with the India U16, U19 and most recently, the U23 sides.
A Punjab native, Kamalpreet says it was a training camp in Germany which made him want to pursue football as a profession ardently.
“I first started playing football back in my village. That’s where I developed a liking for the game. Then one day, I underwent trials at the Chandigarh Football Academy (CFA) which was a very renowned institution at the time. I got selected by the academy,” he told Goal.
“With the academy in the first year, we went to Germany for a camp where I got to see real discipline and professional footballers up close. That’s when the bug of wanting to make it as a professional footballer struck me.”
Having returned from playing in the SAFF U19 Cup in 2014, Kamalpreet made the decision to sign up for Minerva Punjab. It was the allure of playing time and a faster career-trajectory that attracted the youngster to the Punjab club over other sides.
“The reason I chose Minerva over all clubs was because I wanted to play first and foremost. I knew if I went for the more established clubs at that point, I wouldn’t really get to play. At Minerva, I could see myself playing with the senior team very soon, and that decision has paid off. With each passing game, my confidence levels have only increased and I have become a much better player,” he explained.
Now a right-back who bombs forward at every available opportunity, the youngster actually started his footballing journey in another position.
“When I was with CFA, I started as a centre-back. Then I went for the Nationals and got selected for the India U-16 squad. Over there, I played as a striker and continued to do us till my U19 days. It was only when I was at Minerva that I switched to right-back. It was my own decision and I just felt like I could make it as a right-back,” Kamalpreet said.
A trusted lieutenant of coach Khogen Singh on the pitch, the right-back, along with skipper Sukhdev Singh, played the most number of minutes amongst Indian players in the Minerva side during the campaign. While the title win came on the final day in a dramatic finish, it provided the chance for the side to prove a lot of people wrong.
“First match we played against Mohun Bagan and drew against them. Then after that we had three wins in a row at home but people were still calling it a fluke at that point. They all said it wouldn’t last and it was just the start of the league. Very soon we would fade away according to them,” Kamalpreet said.
With their budget reportedly less than one-fifth of what the Kolkata giants East Bengal and Mohun Bagan enjoyed, not many believed that Minerva would be able to sustain their blistering start. It took a passionate owner to convince the players that they could, in fact, upset the giants come the end of the season.
“Our owner is crazy about football and he can do anything. He would always be there to motivate us before each match. Mr. (Ranjit) Bajaj would remind us that we might have a meagre budget compared to the Kolkata giants but at the end of the day there would be 11 players on both sides, no matter how much both teams spent. That is how he would motivate us, that in the end only the effort mattered,” the right-back said.
With the Indian Super League (ISL) rising to prominence in the past four years, comparisons between the I-League have been inevitable. Which league Kamalpreet prefers is pretty clear.
“There were qualifying matches for the Super Cup held only recently. In that, it was clear to see the huge improvement in the I-League teams. Many teams beat their ISL counterparts too. It is hard to say the ISL is better than the I-League or vice versa. However, ISL remains ISL!” he stated emphatically.
Does that mean the youngster would be open to testing the waters in the ISL in the near future?
“I am happy where I am right now. But if I do get an offer from an ISL club, I would definitely love to try,” he said.
Having represented India in three age-groups already, it might not be too long before Kamalpreet is knocking on the doors for Stephen Constantine's senior India side. He, however, is keeping his feet firmly planted on the ground for now.
"I would obviously love to play for the Indian senior team one day. But right now, I need to improve a lot as a defender first. Then, who knows," he said before signing off.