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Just like a lot of Indian children, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu had his first tryst with sport at a cricket academy, in Mohali. He spent a couple of days there, during which he mostly “ran around the ground and felt quite miserable". Around the same time—Sandhu was 9 then—he won a race at school. It prompted his sports teacher to scribble a note in his diary: “Send Gurpreet to football academy."

Today, at 24, Sandhu is India’s No.1 goalkeeper. He runs the least on the field; his massive hands do all the work.

Having played in seven out of the last eight India matches, thus breaking the stronghold Subrata Pal had over the goalkeeper’s position till last year, Sandhu’s stock has risen with unexpected rapidity. He was the first-choice keeper during India’s 2016 South Asian Football Federation (Saff) Cup victory and their 2018 Fifa World Cup qualifying campaign, which began last year.

“He (Sandhu) is cool, calm and intelligent...and his decision making is good," India’s goalkeeping coach Rogerio Ramos said last year. He warned that the management doesn’t want to rush him into the No.1 position. In the very next match, a World Cup qualifier against Oman on 13 October, Sandhu started.

“He was knocking on the door and has responded brilliantly to starting games," Ramos said during an I-League match in Goa in January. “He’s mentally very strong."

On 15 August 2014, Sandhu signed a full-time contract with Stabæk, a club based out of the tiny Norwegian town of Bekkestua, which plays in Norway’s top division, the Tippeligaen. He became the first Indian to play for a top-division European team.

2015 was a breakthrough year for Sandhu in more ways than one. He made just one start in a Cup game as Stabæk finished third in the Tippeligaen—this means they will play the qualifiers for the 2016-17 Europa League—but he has become an integral part of the team and expects to get more starts this season. The Tippeligaen started last week.

Sandhu with his Stabæk team after finishing third in the 2015 season. Photo courtesy Gurpreet Singh Sandhu
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Sandhu with his Stabæk team after finishing third in the 2015 season. Photo courtesy Gurpreet Singh Sandhu

Apart from training, cooking his own meals and watching Two And A Half Men reruns takes up most of his time. He spends most of his time watching football games. He cooks a mean chicken curry and mentions that he bought frozen lacchha parathas, but is wary of having them.

“I have to avoid maida (refined flour)," he says. Like all goalkeepers, he started playing in between the sticks because he was simply taller than the rest of the children when he took up the sport. He is 6ft, 5.5 inches now, and maintaining that large yet agile frame takes a lot of discipline.

The real challenge, though, is gelling with the community.

“It’s not just lonely in the city; it’s lonely in the football team as well—I’m the only Indian. The African players, the European players, they have something in common. I don’t. So I try to gel in, mess around more than I usually would. You don’t want to be the guy in a corner who says nothing."

“I hope they find me funny," he adds, as an afterthought. There is a tinge of sadness to this; Sandhu has almost no friends from school or college.

But over PlayStation and training sessions, he has struck up a close friendship with the club’s No.1 goalkeeper, Ivory Coast’s Sayouba Mandé.

Then there’s the long-distance relationship. Sandhu is the exact opposite of the stereotypical footballer. “My girlfriend’s (now fiancée) friends tell her that ‘oh, you know, Gurpreet is in a foreign country’ and all that, but I tell her, ‘There’s nothing you need to worry about.’ But she does feel insecure at times. It’s hard. It’s part of the struggle. I’m thankful she has stuck with me," he says.

Sandhu is very intense on the pitch. Like Michael Jordan, he thinks of the game, and what he will do, the night before: “I visualize that I will dive left, tip the ball past the post or rush and sweep the ball off someone’s feet. I do that, and then the next day, when a situation like this comes, I am ready."

Though he is friendly off the pitch, an acknowledging glance is all I got after the World Cup qualifying match against Iran in Bengaluru last September. Despite India losing 3-0, Sandhu’s performance was gutsy and assured—he came off his line without hesitation multiple times, sweeping the ball off the feet of Iran’s strikers.

Off the pitch, Sandhu is a prankster. At a lunch in Mumbai a few months ago, someone mistook him for a wrestler, and he played along quite happily. It’s easy for him to stay grounded. When he visits home, he says, his relatives still ask, “Par karte kya ho (But what work do you do)?" refusing to believe that an Indian can make a living playing football abroad.

Yet, from very early on, Sandhu’s talent has been apparent. Back in 2010, when he was just 18, he was signed by one of India’s top clubs, East Bengal. By 2012, he was their first-choice keeper. That year, during a training session, he was watched closely by English goalkeeping legend John Burridge, who was in India as a television pundit.

Burridge had a word of advice for Sandhu: “You’re wasting time; you can play in Europe."

Sandhu and Burridge kept in touch, and in 2014, the Englishman arranged for his trial at Stabæk.

Despite all the achievements, however, Sandhu’s motivation seems to spring from a ridiculously innocent fear: “My father took me to his village and showed me one of those huge ugly rickshaws and said, ‘If you don’t do well in life, you’re going to drive that for a living.’ I said to myself, ‘F*ck man, I don’t want to drive a three-wheeler all my life.’ That really pushed me for some reason."

Sandhu’s father is a deputy superintendent of police, and his mother in Punjab Police. At present, she is part of the UN force in Cyprus.

Sandhu says that circumstances have been very kind to him. When the U-16 Chandigarh team was getting picked in 2006-07, the first-choice goalkeeper was sick, the second-choice injured and the third-choice couldn’t make it (his parents probably refused to let him travel). So in came Sandhu, saving a penalty in a shootout during the North Zone finals in 2006-07. He dived left, the shooter went straight, the ball hit his legs, then bounced off the crossbar, and the next thing he knew, he had been picked as an India U-16 probable.

Something similar happened when he was benched during India’s U-16 Asian Football Confederation (AFC) qualifiers in November 2007. The No.1, Harshad Mehr, crashed into the goalpost during training and couldn’t play. Sandhu played all five ensuing matches and India didn’t lose a single game.

But if fate has helped him, he has also made the hard decisions himself. Sandhu has stayed away from the Indian Super League clubs and the money and fame that goes with it. He has learnt to make decisions the hard way. To ensure he wouldn’t leave, East Bengal refused to let him go for a six-month trial with Wigan Athletic in England back in 2012 (arranged by Burridge). Since then, he is careful about the contracts he signs.

Sandhu feels special being the only Indian footballer playing abroad among the current crop, but there’s a certain shame about it as well: “It’s surprising, isn’t it? But it makes me feel sad; it shows the situation of football in India, and our standard. We know how much work we need."

That work possibly starts with Sandhu. He is by far India’s best shot at making it big in Europe, finally opening the doors that have been shut since Bhaichung Bhutia’s knees froze during his stint with Bury FC in England from 1999-2002.

Pulasta Dhar is news editor (sports) at Scoopwhoop

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