Wooden spooners, well, almost.
Germany won the FIFA World Cup 2014, and crashed out of the tournament during the group stage in 2018, registering just one – hard-fought – victory in the tournament’s entirety. The team struggled with its misguided loyalty on players who had past their sell-by dates and stagnation culminating in a footballing formulae that became too rigid for their own fluidity.
It wasn’t the case with Minerva Punjab FC though as they cruised to the I-League title in one season and crumbled like pieces to the bottom of the poll (well, almost) the next. There wasn’t stagnation – new players and a coach had been welcomed in. Some players returned from loan deals and some left. Pretty basic club dealings.
What went wrong then? Three major issues.
The battles beyond the pitch
Minerva was in the midst of a storm that slowly but gradually encircled it and Indian football and the Super Cup, later, became the epicentre. Their tussle against the All India Football Federation cost them a little too much, and the club never really looked like the force that lifted the spoils last season.
Owner Ranjit Bajaj’s constant spats did not help. The controversy surrounding the away match against Real Kashmir just after the Pulwama attacks did not help either. Bajaj time and again made his stand loud and clear against the Indian Super League, a private tournament that looks set to become the Premier League of the country replacing the I-league. That earned him the ire of the Federation and didn’t make life easy.
He blamed the Federation, much later after his disappointing league sojourn had ended, for not getting a stadium for AFC commitments. That matter got resolved later, but left a sour taste in the Federation due to the blame game played by the club.
Former players William Opoku and Yu Kuboki accused the club for ill-treating them when they moved on, an allegation the club’s image group had to fight hard.
Paul Munster, from Northern Ireland, was a big-name entry to manage the side that had lifted the trophy and was set to take the side to the higher echelons of Asian competitions, but that idea did not last long. Minerva lost 4-0 to Iran’s Saipa FC in their AFC Champions League clash, and slid back to the AFC Cup group stage.
In the league and in Asia, the team has looked a shadow of its past. With Chencho Gyeltshen first signing for Bengaluru FC and then moving on loan to NEROCA, the club lost its most influential attacker and failed to replace him adequately in the transfer market. The lack of quality foreigners further aggrieved their condition.
After Munster’s exodus, Sachin Badadhe got promoted, but did not have enough time or money to buy his way out of crisis, and the way teams were set up, it looked uninspired and lacking in ideas. Just four wins in 19 outings mirrors that.
Too much impetus and responsibility were given to unheralded and untested Indian players, and they expectedly fell short of delivering the goods day-in and day-out. The foreign core earned their fair share of credits when Minerva stormed to the title, but it wasn’t their when they needed it for retaining it. The loss of it, and the lack of replacements, hit the club hard.
The monetary condition, Bajaj time and again has reiterated, isn’t the best. Kouame Konan Zacharie’s red card against Gokulam Kerala early in the game broke Minerva’s rhythm. Such moments have been crucial, and while statistics cannot always back footballing logics, the transfers looked weak even on paper, let alone on the pitch.
The club may or may not shut shop, but doesn’t look too inspiring at the moment. The mood, probably affected by the all-inclusive I-league-ISL tussle led by their owner, is too diverted from the game. With the AFC encounters coming fast, it remains to be seen how the Warriors pull off miracles, like they did when they lifted the trophy.