The 2017-18 season of I-League saw Minerva Punjab lift the coveted trophy on the final day thereby becoming the first team from North India to clinch the championship in 21 years. JCT (Jagatjit Cotton & Textile) FC were the last outfit to get their hands on the winners’ medal in 1996-97 chapter of National Football League (NFL).
It is safe to say that the Ranjit Bajaj-owned club restored the pride and prestige for the state of Punjab, which continues to produce players across all age groups for the Indian national team.
The game is big in Punjab and the state has a wide range of academies. In this piece, we take a look at the framework of the leagues in the state of Punjab.
There are seven state leagues in Punjab which can be categorically divided under senior men’s, men’s second division, under-18 boys, under-16 boys, and senior women’s league, under-18 girls and under-15 girls.
Of this, the most well-known league is the JCT Punjab State Super Football League which belongs to the senior men’s category. This season will be its 32nd year of existence.
The tournament has two phases. The first phase sees ten teams divided into two groups. The top three teams from each group go to the second phase where they are joined by two teams from the second division.
The league follows a different format in terms of its venues. Some matches are fixed on a home and away basis, and a few are played in neutral venues. The neutral venues are usually rural areas, grassroots centres where the craze for football doesn’t exist, so as to introduce the sporting culture to children. Malerkotla city of Sangrur district has been one of the several places Punjab Football Association (PFA) had chosen to popularise the game.
JCT Phagwara was a massive force in the state league until it disbanded in 2011 but its academy continues to participate in the contest. Border Security Force (BSF), Punjab Police, Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) (all from Jalandhar), Rail Coach Factory (Kapurthala) and Dalbir Football Academy (Patiala) are the other well-known names to take part.
PFA has 19 affiliated district associations, except Moga and Pathankot districts. Every district has its own tournament known as the inter-district competition at the under-8, under-10 and under-12 level in schools. At the senior level, the respective clubs compete against each other.
In addition to this, Punjab also has a regional league called the DOABA League that takes place in Mahilpur which is very famous.
Punjab is in a transitional phase when it comes to youth football. Vijay Bali, who is the Joint-Secretary of Punjab FA, explains, ‘’Earlier, we had a league in the under-14 age group which included eight to nine grassroot academies. Currently we have 32 academies in the under-15 category and 18 academies in the under-18 age group.
‘’We are going to implement youth leagues this year with the under-15 and under-18 categories.’’
Lately, trials in the under-13 and under-18 categories for boys and girls were conducted in Phagwara city of Punjab. Recalling the event, Bali comments, ''We conducted the trials in three phases; we conducted regional trials first by deciding eleven venues. The trials were initially planned for February-March but they got delayed. Hence, we shortlisted 174 boys beforehand for the scouts in the age categories and around 121 junior girls turned up for the trials.
‘’The scouts were delighted with the talent but even now a few areas aren’t covered yet. We would definitely want them (AIFF) to come up with a regular (scouting) plan for Punjab so the children who missed out for whatever reasons, will get an opportunity."
Women's football structure
For the inaugural edition of Indian Women’s League (IWL), the state of Punjab had conducted a league which saw six teams go head-to-head for a place in the final round of the women’s premier tournament.
Although IWL has not seen any representation of Punjab in the main round over the two years, the Punjab FA is focused on its women’s football structure. ‘’We have introduced a senior women’s league which will commence from the month of July. We are planning a three-month-long, well-planned league for women and the winner will qualify for the Indian Women’s League’s main round,’’ Bali reveals.
Interestingly, the league will run longer than the AIFF's national women's league - the IWL's main round.
The league will have ten clubs and the matches will be played over two legs. Central Reserve Police Force (Jalandhar) and United Warriors Sporting Club (Phagwara) are two of the well-known clubs. Apart from this, teams from Ludhiana, Jalwana and Mahilpur will also participate in the league which will kick start on July 20. A league for under-15 and under-18 junior girls is also on the cards, slated for November this year.
Apart from encouraging the participation of female footballers, Punjab FA has also contributed towards women's caoaching. In order to boost involvement of women, a D-Licence course was held last year.