Engineer builds football club: Rajasthan United went from college team to league I team
In 2014, a freshman of engineering created a football team in his college for a casual kick. Four years later, his team were invited to compete in the Rajasthan State League to make up the numbers. Last Saturday, the Rajasthan United club managed one of the most improbable heists in Indian football: the qualification for the I-League, the second division of Indian football.
“It looks like a Hollywood movie,” said Kamal Saroha, a 26-year-old civil engineer, co-owner of Rajasthan United.
Over the past few years, the I-League has produced plenty of underdog stories – whether it’s the rise of Bengaluru FC, the rise of Aizawl, the fiery Minerva Punjab or the rocky performances of Real Kashmir.
With each passing season and each heartwarming story, the league has extended its footprint across the country. In that sense, Rajasthan United’s qualification continues the trend of the odds-defying minnows in Indian football.
At the same time, their ascent is different.
Every region that witnessed these miracles on the pitch had some sort of football culture. Not Rajasthan, however. The state was home to one of India’s famous teams of the 1960s and 1970s, the Rajasthan Armed Police.
But he’s never had a professional club and hasn’t produced a renowned player since the two Rajvi brothers, Magan and Chain, who wowed crowds across the country in the ’60s and’ 70s.
This lack of culture was Saroha’s first observation when he left Delhi to study at Jaipur Engineering College and Research Center (JECRC) in 2014. “Even the college didn’t have a team,” he says. So he gathered a group of football crazy students and formed one.
No one, however, imagined that the casual post-conference games would become anything serious, especially after the frequency of these games had reduced over the past year, when campus internships were just around the corner.
Saroha, who wanted to get into sports management, reluctantly accepted a job offer from a Gurgaon-based infrastructure company at her family’s insistence. “But it was so frustrating,” he says. “You can imagine the life of an apprentice engineer who just graduated. No football… The frustration reached such a level that one day I started to cry in front of my mother.
After six months, Saroha quit his job, left Delhi and returned to Jaipur where, together with a friend, he started a sportswear business, which supplied kits to local Rajasthani football teams.
One of their clients was AU Rajasthan FC, now called Rajasthan Perfect, who had hopes of playing in the second division of the I-League. In 2018, an AU Rajasthan official approached Saroha asking him to field a team in the state league the following year.
“They lacked one to meet the minimum criteria – without eight teams they couldn’t lead the state league. And if this tournament did not take place, a club in Rajasthan would not be eligible to compete in the second division of the I-League, ”said Saroha.
At first, then 23, he laughed at the mere idea of forming a team that would participate in the Rajasthan League. But after a lot of persuasion, he agreed.
“I relaunched some of my JECRC FC contacts and got some players from there. The rest we got from other parts of the state. It was weird. AU Rajasthan had certified A and B coaches… I brought everyone together just on the relationship, ”says Saroha. “I couldn’t even afford to pay anyone, but the players were more than happy to participate as long as their food and accommodation was taken care of.”
The JECRC FC team consisted of teachers, physical trainers and students. And, the team that was there just to do the math beat the professional team as UA Rajasthan was to become the 2019 Rajasthan League champion and become the state entrance for the I- Second Division. League.
“Suddenly I was in foreign territory,” says Saroha, who had only “managed” her varsity team before that. “I knew what the Second Division was, but I had no idea of the rules. I downloaded all the documents and educated myself, ”he says. But it was too overwhelming and that year the club gave the second division a pass. “We weren’t prepared for it.
In 2020, as the soccer world, like the rest of the planet, came to a halt due to the pandemic, Saroha made sure to be ready for next season. He first made two of his friends – Rajat Mishra, an entrepreneur and Swapnil Dhaka, a footballer – the “co-founders” of the club. The trio renamed JECRC FC in Rajasthan United, then partnered with an international school in Bhilwara to set up a residential academy and started looking for young players across Rajasthan.
When the State League returned in July 2021, it was in a better position than before. But Rajasthan United finished second behind another state heavyweight, Zinc, who entered the I-League’s second division on the virtue of being the champions.
Zinc, however, was unable to meet the licensing criteria of the Indian Football Federation, rendering them ineligible for the competition. Therefore, Rajasthan United, which was next in the queue, snuck out. “On August 30, we learned that we were going for qualifying. And the 31st was the last day to register the players, ”said Saroha.
Club general manager Dinesh Negi, the three co-founders and coach Vikrant Sharma entered negotiations at a rapid pace. “We have recruited nearly a dozen players in a very short period of time. In fact, the recording of our center-back, Gurmukh Singh, ended at 11.59pm, one minute before the deadline! Saroha said.
Their campaign, too, was touch and go.
Boots that cost Rs 500
When Rajasthan United landed in Bangalore, where the I-League’s second division was held earlier this month, few gave Rajasthan United a chance. Even more, after their first game against Rynith FC of Shillong where they led 3-0 but almost lost the advantage before hanging on to win 3-2.
“Nobody expected us to do a lot of things after this game,” said Saroha. “We were a team with players who had been together for a few weeks, while others had been training for months and had also participated in a few tournaments. Some of our players were playing with shoes that cost Rs 500. It was a complete shift.
But coach Sharma, who played for Goa giants Dempo and Churchill Brothers, ensured his side remained undefeated throughout the tournament and crucial wins over Delhi and Bhopal-based Madan Maharaj placed them in pole position to qualify for the I-League.
In the last game, Rajasthan just needed to avoid defeat to Kenkre FC from Mumbai, who needed to win to qualify. On a sunny Saturday afternoon, true to a movie script, goalkeeper Vishal Joon, after a forgettable start to the campaign, produced a heroic performance and Rajasthan held a goalless draw to qualify for the I-League .
“It’s hard to describe everything that happened,” said Saroha, who began her search for an investor for the I-League. “It was all just for fun. “
And now, unlikely as it sounds, the engineer has ended up building a football club.