Sunday 29 May 2016 will forever be marked as a something of a landmark day for Indian football. Playing for Stabaek in Norway’s Tippeligaen, goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu achieved a historic feat by becoming the first Indian footballer to start in a European top-flight league game. It may barely have caused a ripple across much of planet football, but for the world's second most populous nation it is a moment that could prove to be a point of reference for the years and decades to come.
Sandhu is hardly a headline name, and he is certainly less well-known than some of his compatriots. Many among football’s intelligentsia are familiar with Baichung Bhutia – aka the Sikkimese Sniper – who played in England’s lower leagues, or Sunil Chhetri who briefly featured in Major League Soccer for Sporting Kansas City.
Sandhu patiently bided his time in Norway, spending the best part of two years in Stabaek’s reserves before finally getting his first league start. That day arrived with Sandhu debuting, appropriately enough, against the club known as IK Start.
And so now, following a breakthrough period at both club and international level, Sandhu appears on track to be the next poster-boy of Indian football. Not that his reward has come easily. The Punjab-raised goalkeeper’s journey has been one forged on unyielding commitment and sheer hard work.
Sandhu signed a three-year deal in 2014, aged 22, and has endured what must have seemed an interminable wait for his opportunity. Standing in his way has been the formidable shadow cast by Sayouba Mande, who featured in Côte d'Ivoire’s 2014 FIFA World Cup™ squad.
Drive and commitment Despite what was undoubtedly a significant dose of culture shock, the tall and lithe shotstopper had a goal that he wasn’t going to give up on. “From the first time I arrived in Norway I was committed, I didn’t want to give up,” Sandhu told FIFA.com “I wanted to develop myself and make myself capable of being at this level.”
Rapid progress saw Sandhu selected for the final six of India’s 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group-stage qualifiers, after long-term No1 Subrata Pal featured in the first two matches. Sandhu, who may even achieve another milestone should he feature in Stabaek’s upcoming UEFA Europa League ties, is unequivocal when asked any of his compatriots should follow in his footsteps.
“I wanted to be the best I could be, and that wasn’t possible staying in India,” said Sandhu. “Every football-minded person back home knows that.
“In my opinion, if I can make, I think many Indians can make it in Europe. I was below average when I came, but hard work changed it. It is all about timing, getting good advice and getting an opportunity.”
Generation next Indeed India’s next crop of talent will have a golden opportunity to prove their worth next year when the nation hosts the FIFA U-17 World Cup. By a quirk of fate, India’s young national team visited Stabaek this week for a training match as part of their ongoing European tour. “I think it will be an eye-opener for the Indian public to see the difference to the bigger nations and see how much they work on it ,” said Sandhu looking towards India 2017.
India’s U-16 team had the opportunity to meet Sandhu on Wednesday, where they played out a 2-2 draw against the local side. It was, unsurprisingly, a memorable occasion for both Sandhu and the Indian youngsters. “They have played many friendlies in Europe, and it has been a good opportunity ,” said the 24-year-old custodian. “That age is the perfect time to come to Europe. I think you need to be a teenager to come here. When they are young, they can develop mentally and not develop bad habits.”
Sandhu says there were occasions when he doubted himself, particularly given the culture-shock of a move to northern Europe where there is only a small Indian community. “There were days when I thought 'it is not worth it',” he said. “There were days when I missed home and thought ‘what am I doing here’. But I was prepared and kept going on, knowing it was the right way.
“I believe in doing things the right things and in the right way. People often take a short-cut, especially in India. I want the young players to learn the hard way, and that will take you further.
“Making my debut was a proud moment, but frankly I’m also disappointed that I’m the only Indian player in Europe, it shows we are lagging behind. The best Asian nations have players outside their country playing in different leagues, so it shows we have work to do.”
Sandhu has re-positioned the bar for Indian players and now, in a key period for football in his homeland, he hopes his example has created a new level of aspiration. “I am proud , and if I can be a role-model for young players then I would be happy.”