The Soer Arena in Kristiansand isn’t a venue that pops into your head when you think of European football. It’s a modest 14,000-odd seater stadium in a touristy city, and has been sold out just twice — when home team IK Start played their inaugural match there in 2007 and then again for an Elton John concert a few months later. For Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, however, the stadium will hold special significance.
For two years now he warmed benches while travelling with his club, Stabaek, across Norway for league matches. But it would change on Sunday. During the team meeting an hour before kick-off, Stabaek manager Billy McKinlay broke the news to him that his name was first on the team sheet. It was a moment Sandhu had been waiting for the last two years.
After returning from the pre-match warm up, the 24-year-old sat alone in the dressing room, reflecting on his journey from Kolkata, where he began his professional career, to Kristiansand. Sandhu’s thoughts were interrupted by McKinlay, who dropped in for a quick word. “You don’t need to prove me you are the best goalkeeper,” the Scot told Sandhu. “Just be yourself, back yourself up and make good decisions.”
With those words ringing in his ears, Sandhu jogged out to his position on the field, as 7,273 spectators in the stands became witness to a first for Indian football. By featuring in the first XI against Start, the 6-foot-4-inch tall goalkeeper became the first Indian footballer to play a top division match in a European league, a feat that even Baichung Bhutia and Sunil Chhetri could not manage during their stints in England and Portugal, respectively.
A lot of noise was made when Bhutia and Chhetri went to Europe (and USA, in Chhetri’s case). Strikers tend to get more attention anyway unlike goalkeepers, who are often unheralded. Sandhu’s stint with Norwegian side Stabaek isn’t celebrated in the same manner as the other two. But he has silently risen through the ranks at Stabaek under respectful coaches.
Sandhu joined the Baerum-based side in 2014 without making much fuss about it. For two years, he warmed the bench in the league while featuring occasionally in the Cup games. But it wasn’t proving to be enough as many dismissed his appearances, which largely came against lower division sides. “People said he plays second, third division teams in the Cup and they aren’t good enough. But until you do it, you don’t realise how tough it is to play even the Cup games. The league appearance helps me in that sense. There are no excuses now,” he says.
Eventually, though, it was a Cup game that earned him the league spot. Stabaek played their pre-quarterfinals away to Stromsgodset last week. They lost 1-0 but Sandhu’s performance caught everyone’s attention. McKinlay, who was David Moyes’ assistant at Real Sociedad before moving to Stabaek, was impressed. Even Stromsgodset, who are among the strongest teams in the league, had a couple of good things to say on their website about a couple of saves pulled off by the India international, claiming ‘Stromsgodset ran over Stabaek throughout the second half and it was a brilliant Sandhu who kept Billy McKinlay’s side in the game.’
Growing in confidence
Looking back, this could well be his defining performance as he aspires for bigger things in Europe. McKinlay was quoted in the Norwegian media saying Sandhu’s show in the Cup tie was the reason he was chosen ahead of Ivory Coast international Sayouba Mande for Sunday’s match against Start. “After playing Stromsgodset, all the pressure went off. They are a very good team. I had not played a top Tippeligaen team in proper competition before. So by playing them, the monkey was off my back,” he says.
Against Start, Sandhu did not have much to do as the team recorded a comfortable 5-0 win. But whenever he was called into action, Sandhu stepped up. According to the match report on Start’s website, Sandhu thwarted a dangerous attempt in the 31st minute, saved a swirling free-kick by Mathias Rasmussen five minutes later and saved a long-range shot in the 40th minute by Nigerian midfielder Chidiebere Nwakali, who is on loan from Manchester City.
The Norwegian league breaks for a month as players report for international duty. Sandhu flew to Laos on Monday where he will join his India teammates for a crucial two-legged Asian Cup qualifier. Sandhu says it’s in his hands to ensure this isn’t a one-off league appearance. And with Stabaek also set to feature in the Europa League next season, he knows the possibilities are endless. “At the end of the day, when I perform on the field, I need to give that assurance to the coach. I still have a lot to improve. This is just one step. But if I get playing time like this, I don’t think I’ll move to another club this season,” he says.