‘I could never dream of playing in Europe’
Like most Indian children with sporting ambitions, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu’s father wanted his son to become a cricketer but the goalkeeper is glad he did not heed the paternal advice. Last week, the 23-year-old shot stopper became the first Indian to play for a top-tier European club after making his debut for Stabek FC in a Norwegian Cup tie against Runar.
“Actually, I started with cricket for couple of days in my childhood because my dad loves cricket and I thought it would not be bad to try,” Sandhu said in an interview. “So I tried it but didn’t find it interesting. There was a football academy in my school and the coaches picked me and I joined in.” His parents did not object after they discovered their son was working hard and doing well in the sport.
Cricket is almost always the first choice sport for youngsters in the world’s second-most populous country, which ranks a lowly 147th in the FIFA rankings. India, with a population of 1.3 billion, in the past had players like Mohammad Salim, and former captains Baichung Bhutia and Sunil Chhetri ply their trade in Europe but their stints were all for lower league sides.
Last year, Sandhu left East Bengal, one of India’s most successful clubs, and joined former Norwegian champions Stabek on a three-year contract and is currently the second-choice goalkeeper behind Ivory Coast international Sayouba Mande.
“I could never dream of playing in Europe,” he said over telephone from Baerum, in the Western suburbs of Oslo, after returning from morning practice. “Since I joined East Bengal, I started to think about it. Some people came to me and said I can make it. I thought if people are trusting in me then I should do it.”
The wait to discover if he belonged at European level was a long and difficult one for Sandhu but he knew it was not impossible. And the lanky keeper’s debut could have not been more satisfying as he kept a clean sheet in Stabek’s 6-0 thrashing of Runar.
“It was hard to match the level of the game here when I arrived last year,” he said. “It took a lot of time, a lot of training and a lot of patience. It is a lot different from India. The speed is higher, the quality of players you face is higher and everything is on a higher level.”
When not involved in matches or training, Sandhu spends his spare time playing video games or watching television. He has also had to learn to cook and prepares Indian food everyday.
Sandhu, who feels he has improved mentally and physically and became a little quicker since arriving at Stabek, wants more players to leave India and ply their trade overseas. “That’s the only way we are going to be a good national football team. Players need to step out and see how it is outside,” he added. The Indian is also ready to fight with Mande for more playing time. “He has been here for three-four years and has been getting the kind of training I got from last year. So he’s ahead of me in that point,” Sandhu said.
“I am trying to match him every single day and I think I am getting there. There are small details which will come automatically when I start playing more.” (Editing by
Sindhu’s career graph
In 2010, Gurpreet officially signed a professional contract with East Bengal and made five appearances for East Bengal before the end of the 2009-2010 season. For the 2010-2011 season, Gurpreet was loaned out to Pailan Arrows, seeking regular game time but ended the season with no caps for Indian Arrows, as they were called then. He started the 2011-2012 season as the second choice goalkeeper for East Bengal during the 2011 Federation Cup, but after the Federation Cup, Gurpreet took over as the first choice “keeper” for East Bengal’s I-League campaign. He started in first game of the 2011-2012.
I-League campaign in their 0–1 loss to Churchill Brothers. He debuted in continental competitions in Asia on 6 March, 2012 in the 2012 AFC Cup against Al-Oruba as East Bengal lost the match 0–1.
Sandhu signed for Norwegian club Stabæk on 15 August 2014. On 18 January 2015, he made his senior debut for the club in a friendly match against second-tier side Follo in a 4-1 win. Gurpreet created history by becoming the first Indian player to play a professional senior game for a top division football club in Europe when he started, and kept a clean sheet in a 6-0 win for his club against Runar on 22 April 2015 in a Norwegian Cup game.