Picture credits: Minerva Punjab FC Club Photographer
Building from the bottom, achieving long-term sustainability and prioritizing youth development seems to be the latest trend in football. In the late 2000s and early 2010s, you’d be forgiven for thinking the way to grow in football was by spending as much money as possible, given the meteoric rise of clubs such as Chelsea, Manchester City and PSG.
Seemingly unstoppable dynasties ruled by money, comparable to those of the Mughals in the Indian subcontinent and the Romans in Europe. were on the charge. Less than a decade later though, it seems that akin to the Mughals and Romans, who eventually faded, these grand dynasties too are facing challenges that threaten their very existence.
In this very analytical and data-driven age, modern, avant-garde clubs are run by following principles related to effective scouting, youth development and building a sustainable, community supported economic model. This enables them to run well into the future, and outlast ephemeral ‘cheque-book’ clubs that come, spend tons of money, and leave without a trace. Developing the best talent from within and selling it for high sums has also proven to be a very viable business model for clubs in nations like Serbia, the Netherlands and Portugal.
In other regions, youth development is used as a tool to undertake large projects, with one, extremely ambitious goal in mind. Take Romania for example, where national hero Gheorghe Hagi founded FC Viitorul Constanta in 2009 with the vision of producing the best Romanian footballers, and making his country renowned on the world stage.
In 2017, Viitorul won the Romanian Liga I, and now have one of the best academies in the region, continuing to go from strength to strength economically. Over the past two years, they’ve produced players like Razvan Marin (Ajax), Florinel Coman (Steaua Bucharest) and Ianis Hagi (Rangers, Gheorghe’s son) and are widely considered to be the next big thing in Eastern European football.
More than 4,700 kilometres from Romania, another very ambitious renegade is masterminding what I personally consider to be the most challenging and bold youth project in the world.
Minerva Punjab FC, based in the city of Mohali in India, is owned by Ranjit Bajaj. In 2020, the young and trailblazing character announced that they would be travelling across the vast country to search for diamonds in the rough, all under nine years of age.
These children would then be afforded free high quality education at the Minerva Academy, and will be trained to become professional footballers. The end goal is that in 2034, this same batch of trainees will help India achieve their eternal dream, more of a wish, of qualifying for the World Cup.
To fully understand the scope, importance and origin of this plan, we must first understand the club, their owner, and the state of Indian football. Minerva Punjab, known as Punjab FC from 2019 yet still very much associated with the Minerva namesake, is a cricket and football club that was founded in 2005. It is closely related to the famous Minerva Academy, an institution that specializes in training aspiring Indian army personnel for written exams and interviews.
Since their inception, Punjab FC have enjoyed a good level of support in their state, and are part of a new brigade of Indian football clubs challenging the norm, and authority – more on that in a while. In 2018, they surprised all of India by winning the I-League, and Bajaj has repeated on numerous occasions that this was down to smart recruitment and emphasis on effective coaching, two things that are still sparsely found in the Indian football scene.
The club’s academy, like the club itself, has been prolific in producing players that have gone on to represent both the Indian national cricket and football teams. In fact, there was a point in time when Punjab FC were the champions of all of the youth-level leagues in the country, and the senior league. The club also announced a strategic partnership with Bundesliga club Borussia Monchengladbach, the true extent of which will be realised over the coming years.
Ranjit Bajaj, the controversial but unfairly maligned owner of the club, is someone who has been at war with the people that rule the country’s football for a while now. Since the start of the previous decade Indian football has had de facto rulers in the form of the FSDL (Football Sports Development Limited), a coalition consisting of the nation’s richest man’s company, and other private entities holding power in India. In late 2019, the Asian Football Confederation, in conjunction with the All India Football Federation, laid out a roadmap for the country to follow in an attempt to fix the very troubled and nonsensical football structure there.
India is the only country in the world at the moment to have two top tier football leagues operating concurrently. The Indian Super League is one of them. Similar to the MLS, it’s a closed league that was founded by the AIFF with the help of private backers, and is essentially run by these same backers. The I-League, a more authentic football league, is the other one. Though commercially troubled, the I-League garners higher attendance figures and still, despite being treated as a stepchild by the AIFF and FSDL, does well for itself.
Bajaj has been at the forefront of numerous disagreements and disputes with the AIFF and FSDL. Along with a few fellow professionals and some public figures, he’s been protesting against the way the I-League and its clubs have been treated.
For example, I-League matches are often held on afternoons on weekdays, are broadcast in poor quality and officiated by incompetent officials. Things have improved since a major tiff that took place in 2018 when it comes to the promotion and broadcasting of the league, but there are still gaping holes to be found.
When it comes to Indian football as a whole, Bajaj says that quick fixes and artificial covers are used to portray the state of the game as if it is better than it actually is. India was in the news two years ago for a dramatic rise in FIFA rankings, but this was due to playing friendlies against poor opposition, and weaker teams fielded by better opposition.
Sustainable, grassroots development is still very much ignored by the authorities, and a nationwide push to revamp and rejuvenate the flailing development systems in the country has not been implemented yet. ‘Baby leagues’, leagues for young children and regional youth football tournaments have started in some states, but are still quite uncommon. For most children in the country, there are barely any football grounds to play in, something which would sound bizarre for fans reading in ‘footballing’ nations.
Bajaj has also stressed the importance of training a large number of coaches and making earning AFC and AIFF coaching licenses easier to obtain for the general public. As things stand, aspiring coaches are required to pay extortionate amounts to sit exams and attend training camps. All these factors, and personal aspirations, led Bajaj to launch the ‘2034 Batch’.
The plan, as mentioned before, is to scour India for the best young talent born after 2010, and train them into high-class footballers that represent India at a World Cup in 2034. “We’re going to find kids that are 5-6 years old, give them free education for 12 years, and under the best coaches, make them into professional footballers. I already have a batch of children that aren’t even 11 years old and they’re beating U15, U17 teams. We have a residential academy, kids will be having sessions twice a day and attending school in the middle”.
The schedule for youngsters involves waking up at 5am, having a session in the morning, going to school, coming back, having another session, and spending the rest of the day watching football, with occasional physiotherapy sessions. Simply thinking of it sounds strenuous, however, it’s worked well for the club in the past.
Initially, I’ll admit that I was skeptical about part of the idea. I thought that parents would hesitate in sending their children to a different part of the country at a very young age, but on further consideration, it doesn’t sound too alien. At the time of writing this article, the Punjab FC team is in the North East of India, a region that has been a hotbed of talent over the years, and a region where football is immensely popular. After this, the team plans to travel to the rest of the country.
On “The Rupeeball Show” podcast with Yogesh Maurya, Bajaj stressed upon the need to travel to the farthest, most unexplored districts of the country to look for talent, and not just focus on the major cities. “We are a country of 1.2 billion, but we don’t cover that many, we cover maybe 200 million, because we only focus on the major cities and centres.”
Academy trials are regularly held at the club in Punjab, and everything is free of cost, which leads to high turnouts. This shows that there is a very, very high potential for the sport in India, but it’s just not being utilised or discovered well at all.
Another thing Bajaj mentioned on the podcast was the need for more clubs like Minerva to pop up, and for the authorities to implement rules that facilitate and necessitate grassroots development. In many countries, a certain portion of a team’s players must be homegrown and trained at the club, but there is no such rule in India. There are also not many requirements pertaining to youth facilities and academies when it comes to licensing criteria.
All things considered, the 2034 Batch project is extensive, ambitious, expensive, and most definitely time consuming. Something of this scale has not been seen in the Indian subcontinent before, and the outcome will be quite interesting to see. Numerous challenges stand in the way, among those are the fact that there’s really no telling which way Indian football goes as a whole in the next 14 years.
The social dynamics, things such as the mental well-being of the children, how they feel, are also extremely important in such a project, and will have to be paramount when it comes to the club’s priorities. History is in their favour when it comes to youth development projects and academy output, yet it remains to be seen whether the future is.