One could barely sense the buzz among people here as the city braces up for glory on the football turf. History beckons Minerva Punjab as they eye their maiden I-League title when they face Churchill Brothers at the Tau Devi Lal Stadium.
It will also be the first I-League title for any team from Northern part of the country. Minerva has enjoyed a stupendous run in country's primary football league this season but the fan following has been missing. Apart from 50-100 odd people in Ultras fan club, the Chandigarh-based football club has never seen a packed stadium. The club has averaged just 3,000 fans in the stadium.
However, they know it could all change if they are able to seal the title. Despite the Chandigarh Football Academy and Minerva Academy running hand-in-hand, the sport hasn't evolved much here. To be able to compete with the popularity of cricket in the city, a top division league title could be the game-changer.
The road has been tough for Minerva Punjab, much like Aizwal FC's fairytale run to title last season. The Punjab club has managed to produce their best with minimal exposure. The Khogen Singh-coached side has shown quality and perseverance.
"Minerva is the best thing that has happened to football in Punjab after a long time," Gagandeep Bali, an ace forward in the team, said Mail Today.
Football in Punjab, as Bali depicts, hit a rough patch after JCT, one of the oldest Indian clubs, shut down due to financial constraints. It was an exemplary academy that produced stars of the yesteryears. Nurturing local players in Hoshiarpur and Mahilpur districts, JCT had become a springboard for Punjab players to jump on to the national scene, up until, of course, the club stopped playing in the top division.
Following a similar structure of grassroots development, Minerva started its academy in 2005, producing some of the best age group players like Anwar Ali and Amarjit Singh, of FIFA U-17 World Cup fame. After a handful of success locally, the club finally entered the I League in 2016-17 season through a corporate entry, hoping to revive fortunes of its domestic players.
"Punjab has a long chain of players that have played for top clubs and even represented the country. In Hoshiarpur, Mahilpur and Gurdaspur, we have a strong football culture where the sport is still quite popular. What we didn't have was a platform. After JCT was shut down, it took a toll on us as we had no place to go," said Bali.
"As local Punjab players, it was tough for us to try our fortune elsewhere. We tried playing for clubs like Salgaocar and Dempo in Goa, but our game was not noticed that much, to be honest. Today, thanks to our performances, people know who we are and what Minerva Punjab represents. We got a chance to show our talent and our performances are soon to win us the title," explains Bali, who unfortunately will be on the sidelines during the final league match here.
To create a sustainable environment for the domestic players to play was just the start to their struggles.
Working at a constrained budget, buying fringe foreign players and a coach who had no prior experience in the top flight, Minerva worked their way to the top.
"It was a very big challenge. Honestly, what worked our way was the lengthy pre-season we got. We practiced for good three months, played competitive matches, played the Punjab State League while also touring to Bengaluru and Delhi. I think I had a team with desire and passion. I worked with the academy and it made me easier to train these domestic players who have been part of it before. Even while recruiting the foreign players, the ideology was to stick to players who could gel well with our domestic players and are not individual stars. Fortunately for us, players like Chencho (Gyeltshen)," Khogen told Mail Today.
The journey doesn't end with a league trophy for Minerva. They would hope to carry forward the momentum. What happened to miracle champions Aizawl FC is a lesson learnt by Khogen Singh and his men.
"That's a worry. To be honest, we can't think that far but it is incredible what Aizawl did and what we are about to do. We need to contain ourselves and aim to focus on winning at all costs," says Khogen.