For obvious reasons, 15th August is the most significant date in India's collective history. As the country marked its 68th Independence Day in 2014, a rather important moment for India and Indian football went largely unnoticed.
Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, a young goalkeeper from Mohali, Punjab inked a deal with Stabaek FC, a top-tier club in Norway, to become only the fifth Indian footballer to be awarded a contract to play professional football in Europe.
The 6 ft 5 shot-stopper had been training with Stabaek's senior squad since May 2014 until head coach Bob Bradley, former US and Egypt national team boss, offered him a permanent contract in August.
Before Gurpreet, only Mohammed Salim, Baichung Bhutia, Sunil Chhetri and Subrata Pal have managed to ply their trade in Europe. He is also only the second Indian goalkeeper, after the current India number one Subrata Pal, to achieve this feat.
Bhutia, considered one of the greatest ever players to don the India jersey, joined FC Bury in 1999, a team in English football's third division, but failed to impress football scouts after three years in England.
More recently, Portuguese club Sporting Lisbon ‘B’ and Danish side FC Vestsjaelland signed Chhetri and Pal respectively. But they struggled to move up the pecking order, with both being confined to the reserves of their respective teams.
However, Mohammed Salim of the then all-conquering Mohammedan Sporting team became the first Indian footballer to play for iconic Scottish club Celtic in 1936. Ever since then, moments of celebration for Indian football have been rare on this front.
This long and arduous 79-year wait for Indian football representation in top-flight European league came to an end when Gurpreet stood between the posts during Stabaek FC's 4-1 win over Follo Fotballklubb on January 17 2015.
Having started his professional career with East Bengal in 2010, Gurpreet represented the red and gold brigade 112 times until 2014. The 22-year-old was part of the national set-up from an early age and the fact he today is the only Indian footballer playing in Europe is testimony to his progress and potential.
To cement his place as Stabaek's first-choice keeper, Gurpreet faces the daunting challenge of displacing Sayouba Mande, the Ivory Coast world cupper. However, the possibility of that happening cannot be ruled out especially in the case of a man who has risen from Mohali's Ajitgarh to the dizzy heights of European football.
Gurpreet Singh Sandhu could be the next big thing in Indian football. In an exclusive chat with Dattaraj Thaly of Zee Media, he narrated his story.
Tell us a bit about how your move to Stabaek FC happened.
The move to Stabaek happened when my coach Mr. John Burridge had contacted the goalkeeping coach of Stabaek Mr. Espen Granli to have a look at me. John had earlier sent Ali Al Habsi of Oman to Granli in Norway before the goalkeeper played in the Premier League.
I got here on a trial basis and trained with the first team. After a month, the club was happy with my development and offered me a contract but I couldn’t sign it until the transfer window in Norway opened in August.
How has the transition been from the Indian domestic league to the top-flight of Norwegian football?
It is a huge jump for me from the standard of football in India to that of Norway. The level over here is much higher than that of the Indian domestic leagues. Day by day, I’m adapting to the European level of football, which is also helping me to become a better player.
What is the major difference between the I-League and the Norwegian Tippeligaen?
There is a big difference between the two. The pitches for training and matches are perfect and all the basic needs of a player are taken care of with all facilities being provided here. Whereas in India, we are still on our way to such developments.
How differently do you train at Stabaek FC as compared to East Bengal?
I think the level of intensity and the amount of detail in training over here was hard to find in my East Bengal days. The coaching is better and we are pushed to the limits every single day.
What was your assessment of the inaugural edition of the Indian Super League? And why weren’t you a part of it?
I think the ISL has got a great response not only from India but from all over the globe and it is a very good initiative to promote the game in our country. I wasn’t a part of it because I had signed for Stabaek and I was part of the first team for the Tippeligaen that finished in November.
Do you believe the ISL will help boost the game at grassroots in the long run?
Yes, I think in the long run it will benefit Indian football by improving the game at the grassroot level.
Can the ISL and I-League co-exist?
All I know is that there can only be one national league in a country and the experts have to decide what to do because, year by year, it will become difficult for the players to give their 100 percent as they will be playing the ISL, I-League and the Federation Cup.
How have you improved as a goalkeeper since the past year?
I would like to think that I have improved as a goalkeeper since last year and I have been in better shape after coming here. I have become mentally and physically stronger and this is the most important addition to my game.
How are you dealing with the biting cold in Norway and is there a language barrier in communicating with players of other nationalities?
I like winters and I’m adapting to the snow day by day. I always used to dream about playing in snow and it's a dream come true for me so couldn’t ask for more. Language is not a problem as everyone speaks good English here and we have good understanding.
What can Indian football learn from Norway?
I think, we can learn how to run a club in a professional way and how to nurture young talents in the country and help them become better and helpful for the national team.
Now that Indian clubs like Bengaluru FC and Pune FC are being professionally run with some of the best facilities in Indian football, do you wish to return home?
Yes, it's good to see the clubs have started to realize the importance of running the club in a professional manner and I would love to go to a place where I can become a better player and raise my game. Frankly, I see that in Europe for now but surely I would love to come back to India in the future.
After packed crowds at stadiums during ISL, the I-League has opened to very poor crowds. What changes would you like to see in Indian football in the coming years?
It was amazing to see the crowd support for their respective teams in the ISL. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been the case in the I-League and that shows how much difference there was between the two. Promoting a team and making the team attractive so that people come and watch should become a priority for the clubs, and in the coming years, I would like to see many players plying their trade outside India so that the football in our country could develop.
What are your immediate and long-term goals?
My immediate goal is to keep the consistent level of performance so that I keep getting the chance of playing and proving myself. I would also like to take a step higher to test my limits maybe and play in a bigger league hopefully in the long run.
Any message for the fans back home?
I have always tried to work hard and develop myself to become a better player and person. As I believe, the only thing I have in my hand is to push myself to the limit and that’s what I did in India and I’m trying to do it here as well. It's a privilege to represent India in European football.