Gurpreet opens up on his football initiation and playing in Europe

India and Bengaluru FC custodian Gurpreet Singh Sandhu has established himself as the undisputed first-choice goalkeeper for club and country but what may surprise many is that the shot-stopper had never even watched a game of football till 2006. A Hero Indian Super League (Hero ISL) champion with Bengaluru, Gurpreet’s father is a cricket fan and wanted to take up the sport.

“I never watched football until 2006-07. My dad is a cricket loving guy. He wanted to be a cricketer. That's the only sport we watched. There was an academy in my school… and they see children who are good physically and athletic and stuff, and they called them to the academy if they like them, and that's how I started a 100-meter race, which is very rare. That's the first race I won in my life. That's how I got recruited in the academy and started from there,” Gurpreet told host Anant Tyagi on the latest episode of Let’s Football Live.

It was not until his teenage years that Gurpreet began playing football. “I started playing football when I was 13-14 years old. I didn't know much about the concept and the structure of Indian football back then. I was fortunate enough to get a call-up from the under-16 national team and to get trained there. That's where I watched football. We were training in Goa and that's where I watched the National League games in Fatorda,” he said.

Gurpreet continued, “That’s when I really felt like this is the thing for me, I want to do this. (It was) in 2008, after doing a lot of research and asking the fellow players who were in the national team under-16. And the Tata Football Academy back then was the platform for a player to get a club. All the big clubs got their players from the TFA. In 2008, I told my dad and then we went there.”

European experience

Fasttrack to 2020 and Gurpreet is a part of the footballing spine for both his club and country. One of the few Indian players with European pedigree having represented Norwegian club Stabæk, Gurpreet spoke of the role that Oman goalkeeper Ali Al-Habsi – who the Indian goalkeeper met during his trial with English club Wigan Athletic – played behind the move.

“Thanks to Ali Al Habsi, Norway was an option because the goalkeeper coach that he got trained from in Norway was in a club who was looking for a good goalkeeper and that's how I got in connection with him. Bob Bradley was the head coach of the team (Stabæk) back then. (Before that) he was the US national team coach. I went to Norway without expectations,” Gurpreet explained.

National team breakthrough

On his national team breakthrough, Gurpreet fondly recalled, “It was a crazy journey. I was playing the SAFF games with the under-19 team in Bangladesh. And then I joined another camp for the under-23 team which is going to play the Asian Games. I was the third keeper. We go to China and (Laxmikant) Kattimani bhai plays the first game. Then I have to play the next two games because he injured himself. We played Kuwait and Malaysia and we were okay. We won against Malaysia and lost against Kuwait by a small deficit, and the Asian Games got wrapped up for us very fast,” the two time Hero ISL Golden Glove winner recollected.

“On the way back at the airport I am told that I have to go to Dubai for the national camp as one of the keepers in the national team got injured. Bob (Houghton) sir called me and I was over the moon. These are the people I've seen training and want to be next to and I'm getting this opportunity to be with them. Fortunately, I knew Renedy (Singh) and Bhaichung (Bhutia) bhai from my East Bengal days. So, it wasn't very difficult for me to gel with the squad being the youngest one. I didn't feel like I was the youngest one, I was still fooling around,” Gurpreet added.

The Arjuna award recipient also spoke of his biggest heartbreak at club level and how it spurred him as well as his teammates on the following season. On Bengaluru’s loss in the 2017-18 Hero ISL final, Gurpreet said, "That was one of the worst nights at the Kanteerava. Losing the final is the biggest setback. We became more determined and we worked towards lifting the trophy (the following campaign).

Currently down under, the Indian international has been keeping fit with Bengaluru teammate Erik Paartalu and he tipped the Australian midfielder to bang in some curlers in the upcoming Hero ISL season. “It’s very easy to train with Erik Paartalu, especially because we are in the same country, same city, and he knows his way around, which pitch is free with a goal. So, we get together every week around two or three times and now four times and try to get those sessions in. It's fun, it's harder to train with Erik than to train in India. I'm pretty sure he's going to score some curlers this season, because he's trained on them very well,” Gurpreet declared.

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