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I-League 2017-18: With a shoe-string budget, Minerva Punjab's title triumph an extraordinary feat

1:21 AM WAT 09/03/2018
Ranjit Bajaj Minerva Punjab I-League 2017-18 champions
Khogen Singh's men have beaten the huge odds stacked against them in remarkable fashion....

As Minerva Punjab FC’s players celebrated their maiden I-League title, the first by a north India based club since JCT’s triumph in 1996-97, a sense of déjà vu set in.

A year ago, it had been the unfancied club from Mizoram, Aizawl FC, who had scripted a fairy-tale run to be crowned the league champions in their very second campaign in the top division.

Theirs was a highly improbable triumph against all odds, inviting comparisons with Leicester City’s triumph in the Premier League a year before them. The English club’s victory had drawn stupendous praise and admiration from all quarters, primarily for leaving behind financial behemouths like Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal in their wake.

Aizawl’s astonishing triumph mirrored that of the English champions when it came to the financial aspect. Their budget had reportedly been less than one-fifth of the coffers that lie at the disposal of the Kolkata giants – East Bengal and Mohun Bagan.

In the same fashion, Minerva’s achievement this season has come on a shoe-string budget compared to the giants of I-League football that are the Kolkata clubs.

Getting their first taste of I-League football in 2015 in the second division, they did nominally well to finish in the second spot. Provided a direct entry into the top flight the following season, they managed to finish ninth in a 10-team competition. Co-incidentally, Aizawl had finished in the eighth spot in their first season in the top division before going on to lift the trophy in the next.

Chencho Gyeltshen, he of the ‘Bhutanese Cristiano Ronaldo’ fame, has been the top-scorer for Khogen Singh’s men in their campaign with seven goals in the 18 matches. A free-agent who had drawing attention from Indian clubs even two years back, the Bhutanese winger is reportedly drawing a salary of four lakhs INR, which is peanuts compared to what East Bengal are supposedly paying Mahmoud Al-Amnah.

The Syrian midfielder is said to be drawing around 60 lakhs INR per annum from the Red and Golds. Al Amnah, along with coach Khalid Jamil, Laldanmawia Ralte, Lalramchullova and Brandon Vanlalremdika were all plying their trade with Aizawl during their title-winning run in the previous season.

Next year, they were all turning out for East Bengal. Such has been the financial pull of the two Kolkata clubs over the years that it is hard for players from other clubs to turn them down. Quite simply, they have had enjoyed the luxury to pick and choose as they will while the smaller clubs have been left to scavenge the leftovers.

The arrival of the JSW-owned Bengaluru FC a few years ago gave the Kolkata monopoly a brief scare, as has the advent of the Indian Super League (ISL) which has slowly become the preferred destination of all top Indian players.

Bengaluru have now switched to the ISL and that threat no longer remains. Despite the flow of players from the I-League to the ISL, the Kolkata giants still remain the kings when it comes to pulling power in the former.  While their rich history and traditions is always a huge draw for any Indian player, it is their financial power which is the biggest pull.

That explains why they two can comfortably chop and change their foreign players during mid-season, be it for injury reasons or just pure bad form. East Bengal have let go of Willis Plaza, Charles D’Souza and Armand Bazie during the campaign and replaced them with Dudu Omagbemi and Ansumana Kromah. Similarly, Mohun Bagan have released Sony Norde and Kromah and bought in Akram Moghrabi and Bimal Magar.

This sort of luxury of replacing expensive overseas signings over the course of the season is not available to the smaller clubs in the degree the big two enjoy.

Their budgets for a single season are said to be around the 10 crore INR mark with rumours that East Bengal have even managed to stretch that by a comfortable margin in the just concluded season.

When Minerva had taken on Mohun Bagan this season, their owner Ranjit Bajaj had exclaimed that the entire budget of his team was less than the salary Sony Norde drew from the Kolkata club.

Gossip has it that the contract Norde had with Bagan was reportedly around the two crore INR mark, which should put the budget of Minerva on a similar level to that Aizawl has enjoyed in their dream year.

What the north Indian club has going for it is an organized structure, coupled with a passionate owner who wears his hearts on his sleeve. Their remarkable success in the junior I-League over the past years is a testament to the work and effort being put in into the club by those involved.

Having an excellent academy has massively benefitted Minerva and has in some ways, offset their budget limitations. Such has been their squad strength that they have withstood the handicap of having to loan three promising and exciting youngsters in Anwar Ali, Jeakson Singh and Nongdamba Naorem to the Indian Arrows project.

The squad is overflowing with players who have come through the academy. This, along with some excellent and sensible overseas recruitment has allowed Khogen Singh and his men to upset the odds stacked against them from the very start.

At the end of a whirlwind campaign which went right down to the wire, the Kolkata giants have been once again left licking their wounds while a fairly new, and relatively much smaller club has performed a repeat of the ‘David v Goliath’ parable.