Gurpreet Singh Sandhu: Making a mark from beyond the border
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He wore yellow, a dazzling yellow.
The newly appointed captain of the Indian football team, Gurpreet Sindh Sandhu, was there to be seen—to show how far he had come, to show how far the rest of them could go.
The 24-year-old has fast-tracked to the top of the pecking order; he was not even India’s No.1 goalkeeper a year ago, and now he is the first name on the team sheet.
Sandhu led a young Indian side in their international match against Puerto Rico in Mumbai on Saturday. He stood behind his players solidly as they went on to win 4-1.
Standing at 6ft, five-and-a-half inches already gives him an imposing presence in goal. The singularity of his position on the field is one thing, what he stands for in Indian football is even bigger.
In June, Sandhu became the first Indian to play in the Europa League—he is currently the only Indian footballer playing in a European league.
“I never thought I would be at this stage,” said Sandhu, a day after the match with Puerto Rico. “I never even thought I would be a professional when I started. But I have put in the work and am proud of what I’ve achieved,” he added.
“It is important that an Indian is playing in Europe, to inspire the belief that we can do it. If it would have been someone else too, I would have stood behind the cause. But now that it’s me, I’ll try my best,” said Sandhu, who currently plays for the Norwegian club Stabæk.
Born in Chandigarh, close to Mohali’s famous cricket stadium, Sandhu chose football because it made him happier than cricket. “Too much running,” he described the reason he quit cricket after attending training for three days.
Always a big lad for his age, he was put into goal by his first football coach, Surender Singh. Within the sport, and within football, he had found his comfort zone. He rose steadily through the ranks, making it to the Under-16 Indian national team and then signing on for one of India’s biggest football clubs, East Bengal, at the age of 17.
His first tryst with Europe happened in 2012, when he trained with the English club Wigan Athletic for a month. “That was an eye-opener for me, the moment I realized that my future is in Europe, not in India. The way everything works there: the environment, enthusiasm, intensity...I belonged there. I knew I had to try and go back to Europe,” said Sandhu.
Though the Indian goalkeeper impressed Wigan coach Roberto Martínez (he is now the manager of the Belgium national team), the deal with Wigan fell through because he was still on contract with East Bengal, and the Indian club refused to send him abroad. But the missed opportunity only steeled his resolve to break into Europe. This was tough, particularly because he’s from India.
“When someone discusses an Indian player outside, they say, ‘He’s from India, maybe I won’t take the chance.’ I know that my name was mentioned to some clubs in Belgium and Germany, but the moment they got to know I’m from India, they filtered me out. That’s the kind of thinking they have right now,” said Sandhu.
Stabæk, which plays in Norway’s premier league, the Tippeligaen, however, did take a chance with Sandhu. Manager Bob Bradley signed him for a three-year contract in August 2014. He had to fight for his chance in the playing XI, and he has slowly but surely found his feet in the league.
“It took me time to adjust with the speed and intensity of the game. It’s more robust, more physical, it’s fast. It requires a lot of physical and mental strength. That’s how European football works, that’s how top-flight football works,” said Sandhu.
That’s the thing about playing in Europe, India coach Stephen Constantine says. “It gives you no time to relax.”
It also gets lonely—though he has stayed away from home pretty much since he was 15, Sandhu now has to live and survive on his own. “Train, go home, sleep, wake up, cook, sleep” is his typical weekday schedule, with league matches every Sunday.
“I didn’t know anything about cooking. I used to ask my mom for directions on WhatsApp, then learnt things on YouTube, now I’m an expert! I cook for my teammate whom I live with as well,” he added.
His roommate is Giorgi Gorozia, a talented Georgian youngster. Their team has players from eight nationalities, excluding Norway, all bound by football and the will to fight it out in a foreign land.
Sandhu had to fight off Ivory Coast’s Sayouba Mandé for the goalkeeper’s gloves in Stabæk’s starting XI. The Indian played a big role when his team from the tiny south-eastern town of Bærum finished third in the Norwegian league in 2015-16 to qualify for the Europa League, the second most prestigious club tournament in Europe after the Champions League.
“It’s a small club,” Sandhu said. “We don’t have the biggest of budgets. Before the season started, we were predicted to finish last. When a team like that finishes third, it is sort of unbelievable. At first, I was thinking that I was part of a European team, an A team, and then, suddenly, I realized that I have qualified for the Europa League. It is unreal, especially from where I come. It all happened so fast.”
Sandhu’s Europa League debut was cut short to 30 minutes when he went off the field with a hand injury and his team lost 0-1 on aggregate to the Welsh club Connah’s Quay, but the Indian says “he loved the experience till it lasted”.
With all the European experience, and the subsequent fame, Sandhu could have easily been much sought after in the Indian Super League. But he has steadfastly avoided the lure of a league that is not yet considered competitive by the rest of the world.
“It has been tough (financially), but what I’m trying to do is sustain for a long period of time,” said the quiet man with an iron will. “I need to build the foundation which will help me earn or live the way I want to for the next 10-15 years, not the next three months. You need to accept the fact that once you go abroad, you won’t be earning much because you’re an unfinished product. I don’t think many players here are willing to let go of the money they are offered here and go outside,” added Sandhu.
He talks about playing outside the country with the absolute conviction of a man who has seen the bigger picture. “Most Indians think playing abroad means playing for Real Madrid or Manchester United, but you need to take two-three stopovers, maybe more, if you want to reach there. They could try playing in Korea, Japan or Australia, even Thailand. That’s the only way Indian football can progress. It changes you as a player and as a person,” said the goalkeeper.
As Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore tells Harry Potter in the Goblet Of Fire, “...there will be a time when we must choose between what is easy and what is right.”
Sandhu has made his choice, and he’s daring others to follow suit.