Eighty eight teams from across Europe will be in action on Thursday night in the Europa League first round qualifying round; in usual circumstances, none of them ought to be relevant to India. However, among this motley list of semi-professional, professional and a few stellar clubs is Norway’s Stabaek FC, the employers of Indian goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu.
If Gurpreet, who in May this year became the first Indian to feature in a top division league in Europe, starts the game against Welsh side Connah's Quay Nomads, he would be the first Indian to do so in a Uefa competition. For a country that has seen its best football talents — Baichung Bhutia, Sunil Chhetri et al — struggle to get a foothold in Europe, this is as big as it gets.
A starting spot, or even a few minutes of action, however, is not guaranteed. In the 13 Norwegian league matches held so far, Gurpreet has featured in just once, that aforementioned game, curiously against a side named Start. Gurpreet, however is not fretting, and is ready to step up if first choice goalkeeper Sayouba Mande, of Ivory Coast, does not get the nod.
“If I’m given the opportunity, I will try to do my job, give my best as I have in the previous games,” Gurpreet said over a messaging platform. Would the stage, even if it is set in a quaint Welsh town, be intimidating for a player who came through an academy in Punjab and was not always the first choice during his time at East Bengal? “Maybe it will if I think a lot about it, but frankly, I don’t want to do that right now. Maybe after I am finished with the match, then I can let it (the realisation of being the only Indian to reach there) come to me,” he said. “The game is more important to me than the occasion.”
‘Lack of playing time’
The occasion, however, is significant for Gurpreet even otherwise. In his two seasons at Stabaek, Gurpreet has spent more time playing with the reserves than for the first team, and there could not be a better platform to advertise his talent to potential suitors than a Uefa competition. Though Gurpreet has been successful in demoting long time India No 1, Subrata Pal, to second choice at the national set-up, his lack of playing team was flagged as a concern even by coach Stephen Constantine, otherwise a big admirer of the shot-stopper. Stabaek’s poor domestic season — they are currently 13th in the league — is also a worry.
For the moment though, Gurpreet does not want to discuss the possibility of a transfer — ‘I don’t know what the future holds’, he says — and is focused on the game in Wales.