NEW DELHI: RoundGlass Punjab FC are the 2022-23 Hero I-League champions with a round to spare. After 21 matches, 15 wins, 49 points, 43 goals, and just 16 conceded, they have demonstrated their domination in a manner very few have done over the past few seasons in the competition.
On Saturday, March 4, 2023, RoundGlass Punjab triumphed 4-0 against Rajasthan United on an overcast evening at the Ambedkar Stadium in New Delhi. It was their sixth straight win, one that was enough to seal the deal and secure promotion to the Hero Indian Super League, subject to fulfilling the club licensing criteria. It was a two-horse race with Sreenidi Deccan for the large part of the season, but RoundGlass Punjab went full throttle at the right moment, sweeping away everyone on their path, while their rivals from the south collapsed under pressure.
Their six-game winning run included three consecutive tough fixtures away to Gokulam Kerala, Aizawl and NEROCA in the space of 11 days. They nicked a one-goal win in each of those games, and that set them on course to the title. Clutch when it mattered the most. Back home in Panchkula, they were comfortable as always. In fact, too comfortable in the 8-0 drubbing of Sudeva Delhi, where Spanish striker Juan Mera netted a hat-trick and added two assists. Three days later, a 3-1 success over Churchill Brothers brought them to the cusp of history – just one win away from the crown.
RoundGlass Punjab’s Greek head coach Staikos Vergetis has been the definition of pragmatism, never counting his chickens before they hatched. “All the games this season have been difficult, and the championship has been highly competitive. We will have to be very careful tomorrow,” he said on the eve of their title triumph.
“The upcoming game is the most important thing in our life, and after that, the next game will be the most important one. In my entire coaching career, I have always followed a similar mentality,” he said.
And that’s the mentality which helped RoundGlass Punjab reign supreme this season. On Saturday, they were the only team to turn up to fight. The hunger was palpable. They played with a sense of authority only champion teams possess. Even fortune favoured them as an own goal helped them get off to the perfect start. From then on, it was just one-way traffic. They were not in the capital just to win the league but to do it in style.
Luka Majcen added a second before the break, his 14th goal of the season. It might be the job done for RoundGlass Punjab, but not yet for the Slovenian talisman. He is now just one goal behind David Castaneda, the current golden boot leader, and will eye the personal accolade come the last match of the season.
While his team toyed with Rajasthan, and the result seemed like a foregone conclusion, coach Vergetis was in no mood to celebrate until he heard the full-time whistle. Restless from start to finish, he spent the entire 90 minutes barking instructions from the touchline, demanding perfection from his side.
“Discipline, dignified, respectful and mature” were some of the adjectives Vergetis had for his squad after the historic game. “I feel very satisfied and proud of my players. They fought a lot, and I would like to say a big ‘thank you’ to them. We gave a lot of happiness to our state Punjab,” he added. This was the second time the Hero I-League title went to Punjab, after Minerva Punjab FC’s triumph in 2017-18.
The scenes at full-time were spectacular. Everyone hugged everyone. Rajasthan United were respectful in defeat – their head coach Pushpender Kundu was one of the first to shake Vergetis’ hands and congratulate him. The Greek was then ushered away by his team and thrown into the sky. He could finally afford a smile.
Chencho Gyeltshen, who was named the Hero of the Match, seemed almost reluctant to leave the celebrations and pick up his award. “I was flying when I heard the full-time whistle,” the Bhutanese said.
Amidst Khaiminthang Lhungdim hugging and lifting everyone in front of him and Juan Nellar running across the pitch crying out ‘vamooos!’, club captain Aleksandar Ignjatović was one of the more emotional ones, shedding tears of joy. He was held in a warm embrace by his Slavic teammate Majcen.
The entire RoundGlass Punjab squad then put on their custom-made t-shirts, which said, “CHAMPIONS I-LEAGUE 22-23 .” They would have to wait for the trophy until their last home game of the season, but for the night, that piece of clothing was their mark of victory.