An interview with Gurpreet Singh Sandhu: India’s pioneering football nomad

Goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu is in the process of making history for his native India, having made his league and Europa League debuts in the space of a just a few of months.

Sandhu’s fascinating journey began as an eight-year-old boy playing in his school football academy in Chandigarh, India. The young stopper graduated to the St Stephens football academy, was called up to the Indian U-16 National Team and finally made history in Bærum, Norway, when he made his bow for Norwegian club Stabæk Fotball.

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Sandhu’s European adventure began when he was picked up by English goalkeeping coach John Burridge while playing in India. Burridge got in contact with Stabæk’s goalkeeping coach, suggesting that the club take a closer look at the youngster. Even in Europe, few people are familiar with Norwegian Tippeligaen sides such as Stabæk Fotball. But for Punjab-born Sandhu this was a real opportunity. “I expected good competition and a higher level of players than I had faced in India, and I thought to myself that I couldn't afford to make any mistakes.”

With this level of competition in mind, Sandhu was realistic about his prospects. “I went to Norway with enough luggage for two weeks, thinking that every single day could be my last one.” But instead, the 24-year-old ended up signing a three-and-a-half-year deal.

Sandhu had made a commitment to his club, and they in turn had shown faith in him. It was a golden opportunity for Sandhu to show what he could do, but Norway could not have been a greater contrast to India. It was a contract that would not only challenge him as an athlete, but as a person. “Settling in Norway wasn’t the easiest thing to do. I was thinking ‘I’m the only Indian (footballer) in Europe’. When you don’t have your mates or your culture it's difficult.”

Sandhu learned to cook Indian food for himself. He says there are many places in Norway to get it, but "it's expensive and not as good compared to India." It hasn’t always been easy for Sandhu to cope with being thousands of miles away from home, but this was a big chance to make his mark and he was not prepared to throw it away.

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One player that Sandhu looks to for inspiration is Reading goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi. His journey resonates with Sandhu, and he hopes he can one day make his way to England – just as the Omani keeper has done. “His journey inspires me. He went the same way I am trying to do – he played in Norway for three years and then moved to England. People in India follow more English football, so I want to go there and break the barriers so other Indian players can come too.”

Sandhu could have played in Europe much earlier, however. Following in the footsteps of Al Habsi, the Indian pioneer went to Wigan Athletic for a training stint in 2012 – thanks once again to John Burridge. “I felt like I belonged there. I had amazing training sessions with the first team the whole week.” And he wasn’t the only one who was impressed. “Wigan said they were interested in having me train with them for six or seven months, and when I got to the right level I would be loaned out. But only if I could convince my employers at that time in India (East Bengal).”

The move didn’t happen, and Sandhu sees it as an opportunity missed. “I couldn't convince them to let me go. I believe it would have been a career-changing move. In the end, I had to wait to finish my contract with them to try again in Europe.” Try again he did – and what a fantastic move it has proved to be.

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Sandhu’s achievements are remarkable, but he’s clear that even these feats mean nothing if he’s the first and only Indian footballer to make it in Europe. For Sandhu, it’s the lack of grassroots coaching and facilities in his homeland that prevent Indian players from fulfilling their potential at a higher level. “I believe that when they come to Europe they won’t come as finished products. The clubs in Europe will have to train them to polish their skills.”

Any Indian footballer (who comes to Europe) has to be in his teenage years, because then he has the time. The older you are when you go to Europe the lesser the chances of you growing up as a player. You can’t afford not to play.”

It’s clear to see what a difference playing in a major European league has made for Sandhu. “I think I have come miles after joining Stabaek compared to how I was and where I came from. As I said before, clubs here develop you, polish your abilities make you physically and mentally stronger and I think I have done that at Stabaek.”

And what advice would he give to other aspiring players from the subcontinent? “I would like them to try taking risks – they can’t live under the shadow of failure. They have to try when they are young – don’t waste their talent in India if they are capable of playing at a higher level.”

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There was no summer close season for Sandhu, as Norway’s Northern climate keeps the league ticking over far later than most. For one of football’s greatest nomads, there’s more to give this season. Here’s hoping he can act as the vanguard for other, exciting prospects from the as yet untapped Indian subcontinent.

– Renuka Odedra.

Renuka is a football journalist for BBC Radio Derby. More of her work can be found on her website and Twitter page.