March 9 – Minerva FC were crowned Indian champions on Thursday following a tight 1-0 win over Churchill Brothers from Goa to see off contenders East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and Neroca.
The final day victory capped a remarkable story for the club from Chandigarh, who succeed Aizawl, another fairy tale champion, as kings of the I-league. The club trains at an army academy and is run by controversial owner Ranjit Bajaj who has had run-ins with the law. Minerva also boosts Bhutanese star Chencho Gyeltshen. Last season Minerva had battled relegation, but this time they went from underdogs to champions.
The task in hand was simple for the Punjab club on the final day of the season: beat Churchill Brothers. The Kolkata giants East Bengal and Mohun Bagan along with Manipur-based debutants Neroca were all still in with a shot, but needed Minerva to drop points. Ghanaian striker William Opoku ensured the three points and the league title with the only goal of the match in the 16th minute.
With the victory, Minerva’s tally reached 35 points in the 18-game season, good for a three-points cushion over Neroca and four more points than East Bengal and Mohun Bagan. Minerva won the league with unassuming football, unlike their predecessors who combined wins with style, but Bajaj’s club were the first team from the North of India to win the national league since 1996 when JCT Phagwara, who became defunct in 2012, won the National Football League.
For a second season in a row, the I-League produced a fairytale champion and an entertaining competition, albeit not always of the highest quality. The Indian Super League, the brash Bollywood league and counterpart of the old I-league, will have looked on with envy.
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