These stars have flown the national flag offshore and have made the entire country proud.
The prospect of watching a domestic player thrive outside the country has been a rare phenomenon in Indian football, with only a handful getting the chance to play in Europe or in some other superior league. Obviously, the lack of exposure for the sport and a low FIFA ranking have played a part in foreign clubs being hesitant to sign Indian players.
Moreover, many players are themselves unwilling to leave the country for another adventure because of the problems that come with the switch. However, some rare gems have still managed to secure game-time at a foreign club. Here are five high-profile Indian players who played abroad:
5. Subrata Paul
An acclaimed graduate of the Tata Football Academy, Subrata Paul started showing glimpses of promise right from his youth career when he impressed for East Bengal. A solid shot-stopper, he earned a good reputation for himself with his amazing reflexes in between the sticks, being also nicknamed as “The Indian Spiderman.” Paul’s work became so well-known at one point that he was signed by then Danish top flight club FC Vestsjaelland.
He became the first Indian goalkeeper to play abroad and despite only getting to appear for their reserves team, Paul gained valuable experience in a competitive environment. Moreover, he came back a much more mature, stronger goalkeeper, who is still going strong in the Indian Super League.
4. Mohamed Salim
Mohamed Salim featured during the time when Indians still played football barefooted and was part of the brilliant Mohammedan Sporting side that ruled Kolkata football in the 1930s. He helped the Black Panthers win a flurry of titles, including the Calcutta Football League for the first time in their history. But, his brilliant ability to dribble past opponents and fool defenders attracted attention from elsewhere, with the Chinese Olympics side inviting him to play a few friendlies in 1936.
After impressing in the first game, a relative of Salim urged him to travel to Europe to look for better opportunities. He was taken to Celtic FC, who initially laughed off the prospect of a barefooted amateur Indian player being capable enough to play for them. But after witnessing Salim’s incredible footwork and ability with the ball during his trial, he was offered a professional contract by the club. Unfortunately, the winger soon became homesick and returned despite Celtic offering to organize a charity match on his behalf and giving him 5% of the gate receipts. He also refused another offer from a German club.
3. Bhaichung Bhutia
Bhaichung Bhutia had to work very hard to gain prominence in Indian football, but once he had the platform to soar, the striker’s name was recognized well beyond the country. The clinical forward earned fame for his brilliant work with East Bengal in the 1990s, before a surprise offer from English League Two side Bury FC came his way. He had trials with more recognized sides like Aston Villa and West Bromwich Albion, but eventually signed a deal with the Manchester-based side. Bhutia made 37 appearances for them in three seasons, scoring a few good goals and producing some bright moments.
He returned to India in 2002 after the club was placed into administration, but after a season with Mohun Bagan, he went on to play for Malaysian side Perak FA. After a successful campaign on loan there, he again went to play in Malaysia for MK Land FC in 2005 in his final season abroad.
2. Sunil Chhetri
Before he gained a reputation as a cornerstone of Indian football, Sunil Chhetri made an ambitious move abroad midway through his career. After a potential switch to English side Queens Park Rangers was denied because India were not in the top 70 of the FIFA rankings, Chhetri had to opt for a move to MLS side Kansas City Wizards in 2010. He played for them in a couple of pre-season games, including against Manchester United.
He spent just under a year at the club before coming back to India, but got another opportunity to play aboard in 2012, when Sporting Lisbon signed him. He played for their reserves side, making a couple of appearances and impressing in the short spell. Chhetri returned to India in 2013, after which he soon signed for Bengaluru FC.
1. Gurpreet Singh Sandhu
Gurpreet Singh Sandhu might be the last Indian player to play abroad, but he’s also arguably the most successful in terms of the superior experience he gained in his adventures. Making a name for himself at East Bengal, Sandhu received an offer from Norwegian club FC Stabaek and signed for them in 2014. After spending the first year getting acclimatized to the conditions and learning the trades of European football, he made his senior debut for them in 2015 and then featured in the entirety of their Norwegian Football Cup run in 2016.
The shot-stopper also made his Norwegian league debut that year, becoming the first Indian to play in a European top division league. But his crowning moment came on 30 June 2016, when he became the first Indian to feature in the UEFA Europa League in a qualifying round match for Stabaek. He returned to India in 2017, but the valuable experience he gained in Norway has helped him remain the best goalkeeper in the country over the years.