We are the only country in the world where the country’s top league is owned by a private party. And ours is the only federation where they promote a stepchild rather than its own child.
ISL should have been a by-product and not the focus.
In Football, ISL will not bring growth to Indian football clubs, the money will go to Mr Ambani and star sports.
If Mohun Bagan and SC East Bengal had not left the ship, the I-League would never have sunk.
Winning an I-league title or ISL is not a legacy. It is when we can develop world-class players.
I am going to our states where there is no football and bring clubs from there. I can provide them with a pathway to the top.
Referred to as the ‘angry young man of Indian football’, Ranjith Bajaj is a man who has his opinions and vision when it comes to football. From raising a football club in a place like Punjab, which is not so famous for the sport to selling the same to develop his world cup patch, Ranjith is a true sports enthusiast and a revolutionary in his way.
In 2013 when Ranjith sold out his entire stake in Punjab FC and established the Minerva Academy FC|CC, his only vision was to make India capable to win the World Cup. Though the Minerva Academy FC|CC started as an amateur six-a-side football club for local players of Chandigarh, in a span of five years, it became one of the most sought-after football academies in India.
In 2018, Minerva held all national titles across all age groups at the same time. They have been crowned All India Champions of the AIFF U-16 Youth I-League or Nike Premier Cup for three consecutive years (2015-16, 2016-17, 2017-18) and are also the U13 Youth league (2017-18) and Hero U-18 Elite Youth League (2018-19) champions. But according to Ranjith, winning a title is not enough to create a legacy, ” winning an I-league title or ISL is not a legacy. It is when we can develop world-class players,” says Ranjith.
Minerva’s ambitious project Mission 2034 is targeted at helping India qualify for the 2034 world cup. And let us hear from him about his mission and vision.
1. Your passion for football is unquestionable, but raising a football team from a place like Punjab, which is not so famous for football, must have been a challenge. So, tell us what inspired you to take football or what generated the passion for football in you?
Ranjit Bajaj: Earlier, in the 1960s and 70s majority of players were from Punjab, Bengal and the South. People Like Inder Singh, Jarnail Singh dominated Indian football. But later, football just died out in the region. When I started in 2015, there was not even a professional football club in Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Chandigarh, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Delhi, Haryana or anywhere in the northern belt, which has 50% of our population. It was not like kids never played football, but there was no organised platform. So, I knew that if we could do something, it would make a huge change.
I played my first Santhosh trophy when I was 19, but at the time I could not do anything because I was a kid. The second Santhosh trophy I played was at the age of 34 and this time, I knew I could do something about it. All I wanted was to give them a platform and that is what I did. It didn’t cost me anything because the boys were happy to get a platform. Hence, to all football club owners and entrepreneurs what I have to say is if there is no football club it should be more of a reason to start one.
2. The usual trend in India is to invest money at the top, that is in the senior footballers, but you took the brave step to invest in juniors. What was the motivation behind it?
Ranjit Bajaj: After the formation of Minerva, we were able to win all the major titles within a short period. Without money but with passion and hard work, we were able to make a mark. But to get to the next level, we need to do something from the grassroots level. So instead of investing in seniors, I invested in the juniors which nobody has ever done in India, before.
See…In Calcutta football has a history of 120 years, and if they had invested in a football academy, India would have been in the top 20 teams of the world by this time. But that did not happen.
You know… Manchester City is not going to take a player from ISL. But if we have a 12-year-old playing well, there is a chance that he could get into their academy and play as a developmental player. So, our boys need to play in the top leagues of the world. For that, we need to start earlier. If they start at the age of five or seven, they can be world-class players as well as international players.
So, I knew the only way we could reach the world cup is to invest in juniors.
3. You always have your opinion and vision when it comes to football. But did you ever get enough support from others in the field?
Ranjit Bajaj: If I have ideas and nobody believes in me, then I thought, I should prove to them that I could do it. And I have shown them that you can not only run a club sustainably in India but also make a profit out of it.
4. Do you think that the emergence of the I-league has compromised the merit of Indian Football?
Ranjit Bajaj: I would have said no…But look…. I support ISL when it comes to infrastructure, sports science, professionalism, media, marketing. Everything is great. But these should be the by-products and not the focus. The focus should be on the level of Indian football it should be based on the performance of the junior team and senior team.
The level of the junior team and senior team has gone down over the last 10 years when compared to Bangladesh, Nepal, Afghanistan. They do not have ISL, still, they are competing with us. Ten years ago, we did not have ISL but we were beating them 6-0, 7-0, like our women are doing now. So where have the standards gone down?
Do you know in the English premier league, all clubs in the championship can probably beat all of them, except the top four? So, when one team gets promoted, they stay for 10-20 years at the top level, and when they get relegated, they mostly come back fast. That is the level of competition that exists there. But here if an ISL team is delegated, they will not come back.
5. What do you expect from the Federation?
Ranjit Bajaj: You know, they say they need to develop Indian Football by promoting the ISL, but no, they are not. If they say they are going to spend 100 crores on baby leagues all over India, I will believe them. Similarly, they have to subsidise coaches’ education and have to make it for Rs 500 for D licences, Rs 2000 for C licence, Rs 5000 for B license and Rs 10000 for A Licence. And then you will see how many coaches will come and then you will see the revolution.
6. What is your take on the attitude of AIFF’s (All India Football Federation) attitude towards the I-league?
Ranjit Bajaj: We are the only country in the world where the country’s top league is owned by a private party. And our’s is the only federation where they promote a stepchild rather than its own child. In fact, they are actively trying to kill the I-League to support ISL. In IPL, it is owned by BCCI, the money churned out could be spent on developing Indian Cricket. But in Football, ISL will not bring growth to Indian football clubs, the money will go to Mr Ambani and star sports.
7. In 1992, 20 first division clubs of the Football League in England took a firm stand and got separated to form the English premier league. Why are the I-League Clubs in India unable to take such a decision? What about forming an independent I-League consortium?
Yes, it is what should happen in Indian football. But what will happen immediately is what happened to ICL (Indian Cricket League), a parallel cricket league formed by ZEE Entertainment. The league was shut down as it raised a threat to the BCCI (Board of Control for Cricket in India). The same will happen here, they will try to shut it down, they will ban players from participating anywhere.
But if the clubs stand together nobody can do anything. And it is the only way to do something about it. But you know what happened with Mohun Bagan and SC East Bengal. If they would have not left the ship, I- League would never have sunk.
8. What is your thought on the current 12-year commercial rights deal between Kerala Football Association (KFA) and Meeran Sports LLP and Scoreline Sports Pvt Ltd?
Ranjit Bajaj: The deal is Rs 350 crores which is a much higher amount than what FSDL (Football Sports Development Limited) pays to AIFF. And this is the amount of money a state league can make out of football. This is something AIFF has to learn from. So, I think Kerala Football might be responsible for the revolution because if this works it will be a big slap on the face of Football Sports Development Limited (FSDL).
9. What are the future plans of Minerva?
Ranjit Bajaj: See, there is only one plan, where all my efforts are going to be, that is to get India into the World cup. And we are going to get there by 2034. If other people are doing the same way Minerva is doing, we may get there faster, maybe by 2030. That means if we have 100 Minervas we will get there by 2030, otherwise 4 years later by 2034. But believe me, we are going to get there.
Other than that, I have to go to our states where there is no football and bring clubs from there. I can provide them with a pathway to the top.