Punjab has historically produced some of India’s greatest footballers, from Jarnail Singh and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu to Manisha Kalyan, India’s only goalscorer in the UEFA Women’s Champions League.
The Jagatjit Cotton & Textile Football Club (JCT Mills FC) team from the state has honed talents such as Sunil Chhetri and I.M. Vijayan while Punjab, as a state team, has won the Santosh Trophy six times between 1970 and 1987.
However, the state has, in the last decade, not had a team in the Indian Super League – the glittering franchise league which has now become the top division of domestic football in India.
All of it changed with Punjab FC – a team from the state, which became the first-League team to earn promotion into the ISL.
“I believe sport has the power to transform lives and our Club is a stellar example of how, by nurturing the holistic well-being of players, we can put India on the international football map,” Sunny Singh, the club’s owner said.
“As we gear up for the Indian Super League, I know they will take this dream forward to fruition.”
Unlike East Bengal, Mohun Bagan, or even Salgaocar FC, Punjab FC (formerly known as RoundGlass Punjab) is not a legacy club. Starting from the bottom tier of Indian football (in 2015), the I-League second division, the club has earned a name for itself.
Winning the State Championship and finishing second in the I-League second division within its first two years, the club – then known as Minerva Punjab – became the first team from North India to win the I-League in its second year of promotion (in 2017-18). (JCT had won the league in 1997 but the league was called the National Football League).
In 2020, when the ownership of the club changed, the club took a step further in professional football, roping in Nikolaos Topoliatis as the technical director.
Nikolas had worked with Greek first-division side, Oympiakos, for 13 years and had seen the rise of several stars, most prominently Liverpool’s hero in its 2022 FA Cup final win, Konstantinos Tsimikas.
He brought with him a set of Greek technical staff, including Nikolaos Tsagkatakis (strength and conditioning coach) and Dimitrios Kakkos (assistant coach).
In August last year, Staikos Vergetis joined as head coach and the club embraced the Greek vision of perseverance for success – something that saw the country rise to fame after the 2004 European Championship.
“When we had an agreement with Nikolaos (Topoliatis) to take over (as the coach), the first thing was to watch the previous game to have an idea about which players should we keep and the second step is to determine which players you need and in which positions,” Staikos told Sportstar.
“After these, you try to put in your mentality in the team. Apart from the technical aspect of the game, every manager has their philosophy. This is what I tried to transmit to our players as soon as possible.”
Punjab signed Luka Majcen, the leader of Gokulam Kerala’s attack, as its first major signing under Staikos. Majcen has scored 13 goals in the I-League 2021-22 season, helping the side become the first team in 15 years to defend the league title.
“I was looking at some games for prospective signings and I watched a match of Gokulam Kerala, and I liked him (Majcen) very much – the way he played, his aggression, his passion and his intelligence. And I asked our technical director to approach him to check if he would be interested in joining our team,” recalled Staikos.
The Slovenian went from strength to strength at Punjab, surpassing his goal tally of the previous season, netting 16 times and winning the Golden Boot in his debut season at the club.
“We had a good season (at Gokulam Kerala). We were champions. But a lot of guys from the team were talking about getting into ISL teams and the coach was also looking for a new challenge,” Majcen told Sportstar.
“I was hoping if and when bio-bubble opens, I’d get into another team which is well organised and I was so happy when I got in touch with this club. And it did not take long (to finalise the move).”
When Punjab beat Rajasthan United to script history, becoming the first club to earn promotion into the ISL from the I-League, Majcen found his name on the scoresheet, beating Rajasthan United 4-0.
“From the moment the referee blew the full-time whistle (against Rajasthan), there has been full happiness in the camp. It is something the players wanted too much,” Staikos said.
Punjab, however, had not had a favourable beginning to the domestic season since the promotion.
After an early exit in the Durand Cup, following losses to East Bengal and Mohun Bagan Super Giant in the group stage, Staikos and his boys have their task cut out – have a positive ISL season with a new set of players, keeping the nucleus of the former team intact.
Punjab FC has assembled a good mix of Indians, such as Amarjit Singh Kiyam, Prashanth K and Sweden Fernandes, and foreigners such as Madih Talal, Wilmar Jordan Gil and Dimitrios Chatziisaias.
But Juan Mera, Majcen and Kiran Kumar Limbu, three pillars of their victorious I-League campaign, have all been retained and are looking to settle scores against Mohun Bagan in their ISL opener today.
Punjab FC, in eight years, is finally where the country’s top clubs have been for all this time – in the ISL. From here, it will have a chance not to be another JCT, but the first Punjab FC – a brand which inspires upcoming generations to produce more Jarnails, Gurpreets and Manishas.