Gurpreet Singh Sandhu is currently in Sydney, Australia, but the shot-stopper is still breaking a sweat or two to be on top of his game when the Indian football season resumes. He is making the most of his time in the Australian harbour city training under Sydney United coach and former AC Milan goalkeeper Zeljko Kalac.
"I brushed up what I have been doing for the last five months. I came here before the country (Australia) shut down their borders and after that, they did an extreme lockdown where you can't go out. So I was training at home. When the restrictions eased out, I reached out to Erik (Paartalu) to know what's happening and if can we train together. I was training with him but it wasn’t that frequent but we used to meet a couple of times in a week to train. But for almost a month now I have been training with the goalkeeping coach of Sydney United (Zeljko Kalac). It has been really good. He has been the legendary goalkeeper of AC Milan. Sydney United have been kind enough to allow me to train under him. It has been a pleasure," stated Sandhu during an online chat session with the All India Football Federation (AIFF).
He is one of the few Indian players to have plied their trade in a European league. He was part of Norwegian outfit Stabaek FC for a period of three years from 2014 to 2017 before opting to return to India and join Bengaluru FC. During that stint he even made an apperance in an Europa League match but had to be substituted after he got injured.
Cherishing that experience Sandhu reminisced, "I broke my hand but I still had my smile. Next day also, I was smiling. I had played in the Europa League, which nobody in our country had done before. To get the opportunity for a player like me (was exceptional), I was over the moon. Thankfully, we didn't lose that game."
He went on to explain that spending time in a European league makes a player mentally stronger and young footballers should aim to start there, even if it is in a lower division league.
"I think it (the stint with Stabaek) made me a better player by leaps and bounds. It fortified my mentality and made me independent. The exposure makes you tougher, a person who can deal with every kind of situation. Nowadays, young players don’t get tough situations. (In Europe) you will be in an isolated place where there's no other Indian in the league. The language, the food, everything is different. It helped me gain that mental strength.
"People think that going to Europe is about having a lavish lifestyle, big house, good car- its not that. You start from scratch. You have to prove that you are good enough to be on the bench, then get a chance in the starting 11. You should start from smaller clubs of smaller leagues in Europe. You have to be very talented, you have to be mentally strong and be there and work. I’m afraid that many can’t do this. It entails lots of sacrifices. If they can do it, why not us? Many people don’t know the reality."
Sandhu is open to trying his luck once again in Europe, given a decent offer comes his way. But the keeper thinks that the training he receives in India is that of the same level as in Europe.
"(The difference is) it is really hot back home in India. It is humid. But goalkeeping training under coach (Rogerio) Ramos, Tomislav (Rogic) is amazing. Lucky to have that level of individual goalkeeping training. I never felt that I’m a step-down. It’s the same level of training (in India)."
The 28-year-old feels that Indian football deserves to be on the top and with the advent of ISL (Indian Super League), the footballing scenario in the country has changed for the better.
"Indian football belongs at the top. We deserve as much respect as any other team. We don’t take anything less. We are not just Indian people. We are hardworking people. We grind for results. We would like to gain the same respect. That’s what we play for.
"ISL has brought the football culture back. It became the bridge between the people and the game. Now everyone asks about the game. Everyone knows where to find Indian football. I’m very proud to be a part of this," concluded the Bengaluru FC keeper.