Gurpreet Singh Sandhu insists he was never as gifted as some others in the business. Modest to a fault, the 22-year-old goalkeeper from Mohali has scaled a historic high for Indian football, becoming the first Indian since independence to play in the first team of a European top tier club.
Sandhu took the field for Norway’s Stabaek Football Club in their 4-1 win over Follo Fotballklubb last Sunday in a friendly tie. It also made him the second Indian ever to have played at that level, following in the footsteps of Mohammad Salim, who was in the main team of European club Celtic FC way back in 1936.
“I am happy that my first appearance for the club came in a victory. It is a proud moment,” said the 6-foot-5-inch star, who was signed by Stabaek FC last year but had since been only playing matches with the reserve squad.
After Sunday’s match, the former East Bengal player surpassed Baichung Bhutia (Bury FC), Sunil Chhetri (Sporting Lisbon ‘B’) and Subrata Pal (FC Vestsjaelland). While Bhutia spent time in England’s third tier, Chhetri and Pal remained limited to reserve teams of their clubs based in Portugul and Denmark, respectively.
But Sandhu’s decision to join Stabaek was no less than a gamble. It meant he had to miss out on a berth in the Indian team for the 2014 Asian Games as he was grappling with getting a work permit for Norway. He even turned down lucrative offers to play in the inaugural Indian Super League (ISL).
“I regret missing the Asian Games. Playing for the country is an honour. But I had to sort out the work permit issues. I was so close to realising my dream of playing for a top tier club abroad, so joining Stabaek was more important to me as I want to develop myself,” said Sandhu, who began playing at the age of eight after joining the academy at St Stephen’s School, Chandigarh, in 1999.
He first got into the limelight when he played for the Indian team that won the 2007 AFC (Asian Football Confederation) Championship qualifiers. He represented the country in the 2009 U-19 and 2010 U-22 AFC Championship qualifiers as well.
He was signed by East Bengal in 2010 and represented the club in the I-League, Federation Cup, the AFC Cup among other tourneys.
In 2010, he competed in the Guangzhou Asian Games as well. Acknowledging the efforts of every coach he has played under, he said, “I am grateful to John Burridge (former Manchester City goalkeeper) and television presenter Joe Morrison who have helped me in shaping my career.”
Morrison and Burridge, impressed by Sandhu’s performances in the 2011 I-League, were instrumental in getting him a trial first at Wigan Athletic, the English Premier League club, in 2012. Sandhu then landed the Stabaek FC contract with the duo’s help.
Gurpreet Singh Sandhu started playing at the age of eight at St Stephen’s School academy in Chandigarh.
The goalkeeper was part of the Indian team that won 2007 AFC (Asian Football Confederation) Championship qualifiers
Was selected in national squads for u-19 and u-22 AFC Championship qualifiers in 2009 and 2010; and also signed by East Bengal
Played in Guangzhou Asian Games 2010
Stabaek FC is a Norwegian association football club based in Baerum. Founded in 1912, it won the Norwegian Cup, its first title, in 1998. Won the 2008 Norwegian Premier League and reached the final of the Norwegian Cup as well. In 2009-10 the club played the qualifying rounds of the UEFA Champions league. In 2012-13, the club was in the qualifying rounds of the UEFA Europa League.