Sandesh Jhingan on winning the Arjuna Award: When I told my parents that I have won the award, I could see the pride in their eyes
Indian footballer Sandesh Jhingan was “working out” when it was announced that he would be given the Arjuna Award, making him the 27th Indian footballer to be thus awarded. “I had about 10-15 missed calls, from my friends, family and teammates, including (Sunil) Chhetri bhai. I didn’t know what it was about,” he says.
Quite naturally, his instinctive reaction was to call his skipper, footballer Sunil Chhetri. “He told me that I had won it finally. I was like ‘paji kya jeet gaya main? And he said Arjuna Award. [Then] There was silence on both ends for about 10 seconds, because I think he knew how much it meant to me. And for me, well I was basically just soaking it all in,” he quips as he explains he always “dreamt” of being the recipient of the Arjuna Award one day.
“I have seen photos of Chhetri bhai, standing in front of the President, while getting the award. And that, somehow always motivated and inspired me. I always used to tell Chhetri bhai, that I will also win it like him one day. And that in order to win it, we need to achieve and win trophies for the country,” he says.
“I didn’t want the award for me. It was for my family. They have been with me and have sacrificed as much as me to see me reach these heights. When I told my parents that I have won the award, I could see the pride in their eyes. It was incredibly satisfying and humbling to see that look in my parents’ eyes,” he adds.
The award, Jhingan says, not only motivates him, but also validates that football is fast becoming a popular sport in this part of the world. “I was only 14 when I decided to play football professionally, and for the country. Back then, football wasn’t televised as much, and I didn’t have much idea about how to go and achieve that,” he says.
“But now, there are games being televised, even at club level, and the support has been only increasing. Last year, Gurpreet (Singh Sandhu; goalkeeper) won it, and this year I won it. I hope next year another footballer, or maybe two footballers win this award. Things like these will only inspire other kids and more importantly their parents, that football is getting big in India, and that they can help their kids become professional footballers, who might play for India, one day,” he adds.
Sandesh was 21 years old when he first played for ‘The Blue Tigers’, and the (now) 27-year-old recalls it like it was yesterday. “I had to wait a long time for that opportunity. I was in the squad for two years, but I guess people thought I wasn’t ready. But then he, the coach, finally gave me the start. I’ll be forever thankful to him for giving me that chance.There’s a very popular saying, ‘You may forget your first girlfriend, but you will never forget your first coach’,” he laughs.
“I remember after the match ended, I didn’t want to leave the stadium. We had won the game, 2-0, I think and dominated the game right from the start. I remember calling my mother from the stadium itself and telling her that I have achieved what I always wanted to do. To play for India,” he says, revealing that the passion to play for India at the senior level almost turned into an obsession.
“I got injured at the U-19 level, and I was out for sometime. I decided that I will not sing National Anthem till the point I start playing for India. So, for almost five years, I didn’t sing a word of the National Anthem, wherever and whenever it played, around me,” he recalls.
The single-minded approach, probably explains why he is considered one of the best defenders in the country, by many, including his peers. “I always wanted to [be a defender). I only want to keep clean sheets and help my team win matches. I am not really here to have my name in the headlines,” says Sandesh, who grew up idolising Paolo Maldini and Nemanja Vidic.
“I know that the number of people wanting to be strikers will be more than people wanting to be defenders. But, I love being a centre back. Sir Alex Ferguson ( former manager of Manchester United) used to say ’strikers win you matches, but defenders will win you trophies. Another one of my coaches tells me that whenever they make a team, the first player the pick is a centre back. It’s a team game, eventually,” he signs off.
Interact with the author on Twitter/@sammysamarth