In distant Norway, Mohali boy Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, camped at Stabaek fotball club, will hope to become the first Indian to make the first team of a top-tier European club, finds Mihir Vasavda.
The concrete-floored dressing room with old wooden lockers is cold and silent. The heaters are on full blast but they are fighting a lost battle. The temperature outside is minus 10 degree Celsius and it’s snowing heavily. Gurpreet Singh Sandhu grabs a small plastic cup and pours strong coffee. In Norway, where one beer costs up to $15, coffee is cheap and in this case, on the house. It is also a necessary stimulant to keep you warm in these brutal conditions; especially for a goalkeeper who doesn’t have as much running around to do as an outfield player.
Kick-off is just minutes away. In the main stand of the Nadderud Stadion above them, the players can hear the shuffling of feet. A few hundred have braved this ruthless weather to watch Stabaek Fotball play their pre-season friendly against Fredrikstad. Gurpreet walks out of the locker room, peers down a long, dark corridor to the light at the end of it.
It’s bright and sunny, but the wind is bitter cold. The underground heating system has ensured the playing surface is relatively warm and remains lush green. The rest of the 7,000-seater stadium, however, is wrapped in snow.
Gurpreet jogs towards his customary position between the posts. He looks around, beholding the sight at Baerum — Stabaek’s home town. As a teenager, he would have often fantasized about playing in snow. Now, for the second time in 10 days, he was walking out in his No. 22 jersey for Stabaek in freezing conditions with the stadium covered in snow. Gurpreet soaks in the atmosphere. But when the referee gets the game underway, it’s business as usual for him. For the ensuing 90 minutes, Baerum would be Barasat and he couldn’t care less.
History is often a loosely used word in sport. But in Gurpreet’s case, it fits just right. No Indian had played for a top tier club in Europe since Mohammad Salim turned out for Celtic 79 years ago, in 1936. Former captains Baichung Bhutia and Sunil Chhetri had short stints with Bury FC and Sporting Lisbon ‘B’ respectively. But those were lower divisions. Subrata Pal had a failed stint in Denmark whereas another youngster, Romeo Fernandes, is plying his trade in Brazil with first division side Atletico Paranaense.
But Gurpreet is this close to achieving what even Bhutia or Chhetri, considered the best of their generations, have not — play for the first team of a top tier European club in a competitive match. Norway’s premier league, Tippeligaen, kicked off on April 6.
A GIANT LEAP
Gurpreet is currently Stabaek’s back-up goalkeeper to Ivory Coast international Sayouba Mande but at some point during the season, he is expected to make his league debut. The team’s goalkeeping coach Espen Granli too believes in Gurpreet’s potential. “He needs to be patient, wait for his opportunity and when it comes, grab it with both hands,” Granli, considered to be one of the best in business in Norway, says.
It’s a giant leap in the last 10 months since arriving in Norway — ranked 103 places above India in world rankings — as a raw, unfinished product. But those who saw him at the St. Stephen’s Academy in Chandigarh or at the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata would hardly be surprised.
When John Burridge, along with his colleague Joe Morrison — the affable television presenter — saw Gurpreet in the Kolkata derby at the Salt Lake Stadium in 2011, he tickled their fancy. Gurpreet could kick from box-to-box, throw like a spear and at 6-foot-5, had an intimidating presence. He was just 19 back then, but had an air of authority around him.
Majority of us remember ‘Budgie’ as a hyperactive, quick-witted pundit who appeared on television at ghostly hours wearing suits in outrageous colours, analyzing Champions League and La Liga matches. A few players, however, will also remember him for giving them their first big break. Gurpreet is one of them. Before him, however, was Oman’s Ali Al Habsi — the only Asian goalkeeper to play in the English Premier League.
Budgie ‘discovered’ Al Habsi when he was just 16. The indefatigable Aston Villa and Crystal Palace goalkeeper, who was on Oman’s coaching staff back then, saw Al Habsi saving a penalty in training with the Under-17s and demanded he train with the senior squad. He would then dedicate himself to proving his belief that the goalkeeper would make it all the way to the Premier League one day.
Budgie revived his old contacts, got in touch with Granli who was with the Norwegian first division side Lynn Oslo. Al Habsi was signed by the club and after three incredibly successful years with them, he was snapped up by Premier League side Bolton Wanderers. Budgie and Morrison decided to go the Al Habsi-way with Gurpreet. When Budgie was convinced of the young goalkeeper’s abilities, he dialed Granli — who had since moved to Stabaek — and Stabaek happened. “It’s about trust. Me and Budgie knew Gurpreet was in safe hands with Espen. Trials were arranged and they were very impressed with what they saw,” says Morrison.
One thing led to another and before he knew it, Gurpreet was on the flight to Norway, glancing at the snow-covered hill tops and the patches of green that were littered on the plains.
Stabaek, who won the Norwegian league in 2008, are a small team with a small budget and are coached by Bob Bradley, who coached USA in the 2010 World Cup. They are based in Baerum in the Western suburbs of Oslo — an area which has the highest income per capita in Norway and is home to the highest proportion of university-educated individuals. It’s also where chess world champion Magnus Carlsen hails from. But he supports rival club Rosenburg.
It is also a region brimming with wealth. “Bloody expensive,” Gurpreet says. “But it’s a great place to stay. I’ve bumped into Magnus a couple of times in the city-centre in Oslo. I experiment with cooking, go fishing on rare occasions but most of the time is spent on the training ground.”
The serene suburbs of Norway’s capital are a far cry from the hustle of Kolkata where Gurpreet earned his stripes with East Bengal.
Scandinavia isn’t an obvious choice for Indians aspiring to play in Europe, though many believe it’s an ideal destination to start off. “The quality of the league is better and there is a higher possibility of getting proper playing time,” Bhutia had said earlier.
Bhutia knows. He has seen youngsters trying to emulate him getting frustrated at the lack of opportunities. Chhetri did not start for Kansas City in the Major League Soccer as well as for Sporting Lisbon B in Portuguese second division. India captain Subrata Pal, who trained with Danish side Vestsjaelland, too did not feature in his underwhelming stint. Gurpreet has already started in seven out of the 11 pre-season warm-up matches. And unlike Chhetri and Pal, who had short-term contracts, he has struck a three-year deal with Stabaek. It acts like a cushion for him to ease into the style and pace of the league, including the weather, rather than being rushed.
His reach is impressive because of his height but it takes time getting used to playing in freezing conditions. Footballs become heavy and firm, and therefore hard to catch in snow. Stabaek’s goalkeeping coach Granli says Gurpreet needs to work further on his movement to match the pace of the league. The transition from playing sleepy-paced I-League to the quick, physical Tippeligaen was sudden.
To displace Mande as the team’s first-choice ’keeper, Gurpreet will have to show better movement as well as improve his speed, along with a little bit of luck. “He needs to be a bit faster because the speed of the game is quicker here. It’s a big change for him but he is getting used to it. He is getting closer and closer to the first team but like Al Habsi, Gurpreet will need some time before he is ready (to move to bigger leagues),” Granli says.
Interactions with Bradley, who is more involved with the outfield players, are limited. But his performances in the friendlies have made the American take note of him. “It’s good to remind them with my performances,” says Gurpreet. “I wasn’t confident when I came here. Nervous, scared… But now, I’m ready.”