The shot-stopper spoke exclusively to Khel Now after scripting another piece of history in a remarkable spell in European football…
Gurpreet Singh Sandhu’s rise to prominence in Indian football has been nothing short of a fairy-tale. The young keeper started his professional career at Kolkata giants East Bengal in 2010 and after spending some time on the fringes of the team, he was promoted to first choice after the 2011 Federation Cup. He was then called up to the national team for the 2011 AFC Asian Cup and made his debut in the 1-1 draw again Turkmenistan.
In 2014, Sandhu became one among only five Indian players to have played in Europe when he joined Norwegian outfit Stabaek Football. The talented shot-stopper hasn’t looked back since. In May 2016, Sandhu made his league debut for the club, in the process becoming the first Indian to play in a European top flight.
Two months later he created more history when he turned out between the sticks against Wales’ Connah’s Quay Nomads in the Europa League qualifiers, becoming the first Indian to play in a European competition.
The keeper has recently added another feather to his cap after playing his first game as captain, also making him the first Indian to do so. On the back of yet another historic feat on his European adventure, Sandhu spoke exclusively to Khel Now reflecting on his own career, also talking about various issues in Indian football.
Gurpreet leading the Indian National team in 2016
Speaking about the opportunity to captain the team, Sandhu said, “It felt humble to get such an opportunity at Stabaek. I hope I keep on building on this in the upcoming season. He refuted the notion that a goalkeeper captain had limited influence on the game as compared to an outfield player and said effective communication was the key to leadership from the back.
Due to the lack of exposure, the Indian international was restricted to Cup games in his first two seasons in Norway, but was selected to face Quay Nomads over Sayouba Mande in the Europa League qualifier game. 30 minutes into the game, Gurpreet suffered a bad injury, which pushed him down the pecking order again, restricting him to Cup and reserve games.
Gurpreet has had to battle injuries whilst waiting for his opportunities in the first team ever since that injury. He ackowledged that the journey has had its ups and downs. Asked how he keeps himself motivated through lean phases, Sandhu explained, “The thought of becoming the best I can be keeps me motivated to go on and fight every day.”
The Indian custodian is in the last year of his contract at Stabaek and says he’s unsure of what the future holds. However, he reaffirmed his commitment to staying on in Europe as he seeks to challenge himself at a bigger club.
Reflecting on how his time in Europe has improved him as a player, Sandhu said it has been a transformational experience that has made him stronger mentally and physically. He pointed out that while the decision to move wasn’t easy; he had belief in his ability to make it work. “It was a tough decision but I was convinced in my head with the belief that if given the opportunity I can make it,” he said.
Alluding to Stromsgodset as one of the best teams he has played in Norway, the keeper also singled out FC Viktoria Plzen and Legia Warsaw as his toughest opponents. He also said that there is a lot of difference between life in Europe and that back home. “First of all you need to learn how to cook. Then the culture is different, the lifestyle is different, the rules and regulations are different. The football is different,” he explained.
The national team has made rapid strides over the last two years, recently achieving their best ranking in over a decade. Asked about what has led to the marked improvement in the Blue Tigers’ performances under manager Stephen Constantine, Sandhu stated, “The belief shown by the coaches and the supporters in the new recruits when they joined was essential and everyone saw that if given time and opportunity they can play well for the country.”
He also pointed out that qualification for the Asian Cup 2019 would be an important step in the development of the national team and that he was confident the team would make it through the qualifying group they have been drawn in.
Gurpreet will be hoping to play for the first team as a regular
All India Football Federation President Praful Patel recently said that the country was keen to qualify for the FIFA World Cup in 2026 and asked if it was a realistic target, Sandhu agreed, stating that it was an important goal that everyone in the country had to work together to achieve.
India is set to host the U-17 FIFA World Cup later this year and the pioneering shot-stopper said he’s confident the team can put up a good show in the tournament. He also hoped that some players would get noticed by clubs overseas.
Finally, answering a question on who he thought could be the flag-bearer of Indian footballer after talismanic striker Sunil Chhetri, the confident gloveman said he would love to take the role and would work hard for it.