HT Brunch Cover Story: Playing footsie with fame
How do top athletes, single-mindedly focussed on their game, deal with the glamour of success? Goalkeeper of the Indian football team, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, 29, on the fine balance between honing skills and courting stardom
Footballer Gurpreet Singh Sandhu comes across as a very competent person in our interview. “How are you so sorted?” I demand over my Zoom call with the goalkeeping star.
There’s a pause.
“Experience, ma’am,” he says finally.
Sure, experience could account for it. But, something tells me that Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, goalkeeper of the Indian football team, player in the Bengaluru Football Club, Arjuna awardee, the only Indian to play in the UEFA Europa League and the two-time winner of the Golden Glove – an individual award given by the Indian Sports League to the goalkeeper with the cleanest sheets – has always been this way.
The 29-year-old Indian goalie who stands six feet, six inches tall, seems to epitomise the very opposite of the popular impression of successful sportspeople as party animals. He seems a responsible person overall, dedicated not only to his game and himself, but also to his partner, his family, his fans and his place in the world as a human being.
For example, when Gurpreet was a little boy and his father’s dearest dream had been to have him play cricket, he fell in love with football and stuck to his passion.
Then, having worked hard at honing his talent and landed himself a place on the under-16 national team, he lived away from home for seven to eight months a year, becoming emotionally independent. Finally, by the time he was about 18, he was financially independent and very happy because of it.
“My parents say that my being independent as a teenager was a huge help to them financially,” says Gurdeep. “And I feel proud to say that I have never been a burden on my parents.”
Know your limits
Gurpreet was nine years old when he started playing football and when he fell in love with the game, he dedicated himself to it completely.
“My father loves cricket and wanted to be a cricketer himself but couldn’t do so because of the lack of support from his parents,” Gurpreet explains. “So, he wanted to fulfill his dream through me. But I didn’t enjoy cricket at all, while I developed an instant love for football at the football academy in my school in Chandigarh where I was invited to play after winning a 100m race.”
As dedicated as he was to the game he loved, Gurpreet also saw an advantage to it that hadn’t occurred to anyone else: football practice helped him escape household chores and school work!
“What I like best about football is that it’s something that anybody can enjoy. You can be totally involved in it, but it’s quick. You get to play and also spend time with your friends,” says Gurpreet.
Gurpreet’s parents on the other hand saw football as a way for their son to avoid bad habits and later perhaps get a job via the sports quota. They had no idea Gurpreet would one day be a star.
“In fact, just a few days ago, my mother visited me in Bengaluru and said they had never thought I would reach such a stature in this game!” laughs Gurpreet.
However, even though Gurpreet is considered as one of the country’s top football players; even though he has an impressive following on social media (176K followers on Instagram!), he still doesn’t enjoy the kind of recognition that a cricketer does.
This doesn’t make him feel bad, though. “Cricket is not to be blamed, that’s the game people love to watch and whatever people love will flourish,” he says. “But I definitely want football to have more of a following than it does now.”
The star goalkeeper is happy that sponsors have begun looking at sports other than cricket. “As a sportsperson, it’s good to get support from brands that can take care of our sporting requirements or help give us better visibility,” he says. “But you also need to know your limits and whatever support I’m getting now I feel is enough for me.”
The social media game
Gurpreet feels the same sense of responsibility towards his social media accounts as he does to his game.
“When you have so many eyes on you, you feel a kind of responsibility to make sure you’re sending the right kind of message to your followers,” he explains.
For him, social media platforms are good ways to share ideas and knowledge from all over the world so that everyone can learn, both those who post and those who follow. But beyond this, he believes that too much social media can be harmful.
“Young people who are obsessed with social media and the attention they get there should realise that social media is not real life,” he points out. “It’s very easy to sit behind a screen and post comments without thinking of their impact or repercussions on someone’s life, but don’t forget that such a thing could affect your life also someday. That’s why if you use social media for personal reasons, its best to do it in a private manner so nothing negative will bog you down.”
This is something Gurpreet feels strongly about, having faced his share of trolling for his game.
“Trolling is inevitable. As a sportsperson, you need to be mentally strong and not let failures or distasteful comments affect you. There was a time when I checked my social media much regularly, but now I have conditioned myself to not be affected by what people write about me or my performance,” says Gurpreet.
But, he is unafraid of constructive criticism. In fact, he feels, one of the best things about sports is the way it teaches you to be tough enough to handle failure in a positive way.
“Failure is the biggest lesson you can learn. It teaches you so many things,” says the footballer. “I have failed so many times and get through it by watching motivational videos by people like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Denzel Washington, who tell their own stories of failure and how despite that, they got to the top. This really motivates me.”
His approach to life is to do one thing at a time so that each thing is done well. “Don’t quit before finishing what you started,” says Gurpreet. “For example, if you have to make an Instagram video, then complete it and put it up before doing anything else. It will give you a sense of achievement. Always have an internal vision of what you want to do or become and work towards it.”
He also recommends that young people find non-judgmental people to talk to, so that they can freely express their fears and opinions and get objective advice if they want it.
So, which social platform is Gurpreet more comfortable with? “Twitter is more personal and raw for me. Instagram on the other hand, is a platform where I can put things out in a more planned way and have a better connect with my fans,” explains Gurpreet.
To make his posts more effective and to give his fans a better understanding of what he does, Gurpreet recently started taking the help of a close friend from Bengaluru FC.
“Of late, I realised that a more professional approach to what I want to say would be better,” he explains. “This way my fans get a more meaningful insight into the things I do aside from football. For example, during the lockdown I did my workouts in the balcony of my flat and shared that on Instagram to help motivate others to work out. I have recently started a hashtag called #MyTopSaves where I will share my favourite books, my favourite breakfast recipes, favourite cycling routes in Bengaluru and much more,” reveals Gurpreet.
Busting the bubble
Like every sportsperson during the lockdown, Gurpreet was a restless soul. Although he played again from September, he found the bio -bubble he was confined to just as stressful.
Fortunately, last year’s lockdown did a good deal for his love life. “I was able to spend six months with my partner in Australia. In fact, after being in a long distance relationship with her for nearly four years, I proposed to her at that time and we got engaged,” he says. “But, I came back before the game season and then from September till June 14 this year, I was in a bio bubble, which is mentally challenging.”
For sportspeople used to spending hours outdoors, being confined to a room and then being tested every two or three days is a nightmare.
“I think Bengaluru FC did a great job for us by partnering with a mental health organisation,” says Gurpreet. “Sometimes it’s easier to talk to a professional than your teammates or friends and family and partner. I did it and it really helped me. That’s why I want to tell people to reach out for professional help when they need it.”
To get through the bio-bubble, Gurpreet picked up some old hobbies. “I got back to reading, sketching, watching documentaries and writing journals. When I sketched the cartoon characters I had watched while growing up, I auctioned them to help raise money for our women’s football team which has as much right to play the game as we do,” says Gurpreet.
But of course, his game is right on top of Gurpreet’s priority list. As it should be.
From HT Brunch, August 29, 2021
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