Rajasthan United: An unbelievable journey from a college team to qualifying for I-League

Seven years ago, an engineering freshman created a college football team for friendly games. Fast forward 4 years, his team was requested to partake in the Rajasthan state league as fillers. October 23, 2021, the club Rajasthan United, staged one of the most unlikely break-ins in Indian football – qualifying for the I-League.

This feels like a Hollywood movie,” says Kamal Saroha, the 26-year-old civil engineer and co-owner of Rajasthan United.

In recent years, the I-League has seen its share of underdog tales – the climb of Aizawl, the advent of Bengaluru FC, the gutsy Minerva Punjab and the bold displays by Real Kashmir.

The league has grown across the country with every passing season and each heartening story. One such story, Rajasthan United qualifying to the I-league brings out the trend of smaller sides defying odds in Indian football.

Still, their emergence is distinct. The regions that experienced these miracles on the field had some association to football culture. However, Rajasthan did not. The Rajasthan Armed Constabulary, one of India’s renowned teams in the 60s and 70s, called this place home.

But it never had a professional club. It also has not showcased a reputed player since the Rajvi brothers, Magan and Chain. The brothers excited fans throughout the country at that time.

Prologue to a dream

So when Saroha moved from Delhi, his first reflection was this lack of culture. At the time, he arrived to study at the Jaipur Engineering College and Research Centre (JECRC) in 2014. Even the college didn’t have a team,” he said. Thus, he formed a team by putting together a group of football-crazy students.

Saroha was keen to study sports management. But, upon his family’s urges, he unwillingly took up a job offer from a Gurgaon-based infra firm. But it was so frustrating,” he says. You can imagine the life of a just-graduate engineer trainee. No football… The frustration reached such a level that, one day, I started crying in front of my mother.”

Just six months in, Saroha resigned, bid adieu to Delhi and came back to Jaipur. There, with a friend, he started a sports outfit company that supplied kits to Rajasthan’s local football teams.

AU Rajasthan FC, now Rajasthan Perfect, one of their clients, were hopeful of participating in the I-League second division. In 2018, an AU Rajasthan representative approached Saroha, requesting him to put out a team in the state league in the upcoming year.

They were falling short by one to meet the minimum criteria – without eight teams, they couldn’t conduct the state league. And if that tournament did not take place, a club from Rajasthan would not be eligible to compete in the second division of the I-League,” Saroha says.

Initially, Saroha laughed at the mere thought of forming a team that would compete in the Rajasthan League. But after a lot of convincing, he agreed.

Rocky start to life

The JECRC FC team was made up of students, teachers and physical trainers. The team was present just to fill in the numbers and happened to defeat the professional side AU Rajasthan. They became 2019 Rajasthan League winners and went to represent the state in the I-League.

Suddenly, I was in an alien territory,” Saroha had only ‘managed’ his college side prior. He says. I knew what the second division was but had no idea about the rules. I downloaded all the documents and educated myself”. However, it proved too much and that year, the club passed up the second division. We weren’t prepared for it.”

In 2020, the football world, like the rest of the planet, came to a stop thanks to the pandemic. Saroha ensured he was ready for the next campaign. First, he named two of his friends – Swapnil Dhaka, a footballer and Rajat Mishra, an entrepreneur – as ‘co-founders’ of the club. The three rechristened JECRC FC to Rajasthan United. Then, they partnered with an international school in Bhilwara to establish a residential academy and started to scout for young players.

Come July 2021, when the state league restarted, they were in a better spot. Yet, Rajasthan United finished runners-up behind another state big-timer, Zinc. They stepped foot in the I-League second division on the pretext of becoming champions.

Unfortunately, Zinc failed to fulfil the All India Football Federation’s licensing criteria which meant they were ineligible to compete. Thus, Rajasthan United were next in line. On August 30, we got to know we go for the qualifiers. And 31st was the last day to register the players Saroha continues.

A new horizon

Dinesh Negi, the chief executive, the three co-founders and coach Vikrant Sharma dived into negotiations. They managed to sign close to a dozen players in an instant. Saroha recalls contracting their centre-half, Gurmukh Singh, at 11.59 pm, one minute before the deadline”.

Rajasthan United touched down in Bangalore, where the tournament was held earlier this month. They did not receive much backing initially. Further, in Match 1 against Rynith FC, they led 3-0 but almost squandered the lead before finishing at a 3-2 win.

Saroha remembers that no one expected them to do much after that match. Rajasthan United were a side with players who had been together for barely a month or two, while competitors received proper training and had participated in other contests. Some of their players even wore shoes costing Rs 500.

However, former Dempo and Churchill Brothers players, coach Sharma ensures his side stayed unbeaten in the tournament. Key victories over Madan Maharaj and Delhi aided them in qualifying for the I-League.

In the deciding game, Rajasthan needed just a point against Kenkre FC. On the other hand, the Mumbai-based side desperately needed a win. Goalkeeper Vishal Joon had a memorable beginning to the campaign. On a bright Saturday afternoon, like a movie, keeper Vishal Joon put forward a valiant showing and Rajasthan clutched to a stalemate to book their I-League berth.

It’s tough to describe all that’s happened,” said Saroha, who is now in search of an investor for the I-League. All this was just for fun.”

And now, unbelievable as it may sound, the engineer has ended up crafting a football club.

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