Never lose sight of your dream: Sandesh Jhingan on his journey from street footballer to national team defender

Indian men’s football team and ATK Mohun Bagan centre-back Sandesh Jhingan feels if someone wants to represent their country, they should never lose hope and be ready to face setbacks on the way. 

The Arjun Awardee Jhingan was the leader of the Indian defense who recently created history by booking tickets for successive AFC Asian Cup for the first time in history.

Indian defense conceded just one goal throughout the campaign thanks to the compact backline led by Jhingan.

The 28-year-old has been outstanding for men in blue over the last few years and in the recently-concluded qualifiers, he seemed to have forged a partnership with young Anwar Ali that seems set to serve the national team in the near future.

Jhingan spoke to Forbes India about his initial football days, how he overcome his setbacks, and a lot more.

Here are the excerpts from the interview:

What was your dream while growing up?

When I was growing up, usually kids of my age, we all had that dream to play in Europe, you know, to play for the big clubs like Man United and all.

But for me personally was just the national team, you know, I was massive fan, was just crazy to wear the only blue jersey that represents 1.3 billion people. So that was my dream and my passion, which made me do all those crazy works, I had to wake up at 4 am to do a workout. So that was my fuel to keep going.

You don’t come from any football academy background. So, from playing on the streets to representing your country at the international level. How’s this journey happened?

I'm not an academy product, someone you know, who's from proper grooming to academies, and I'm more of a street footballer, so we don't have that solid base. So I did my basic things, with my friends, with my seniors, I just kept training. And, when you're 17-18, you've left school and you're struggling from injuries, you need to get a job...I needed to get into a club. I was training on my own for 4-5 months and got myself fit enough. 

Then I took a train to Kolkata. It was a pretty hopeful one. So, rang a few people, there were like 250 players there of my age who came to the trials. I didn't even get a proper shot to show what I'm worth. I got rejected, but it was okay and I was not broken then. Whoever I could meet there, there were lots of Punjabis and North Indians already there, calling random seniors and saying, 'hey set me up a trial here', taking the train to Howrah and going there taking bus and getting to hear or maybe some trials are happening there just go randomly and request for trials.

Everyone didn't show much interest in me and it came to a level that I almost went to the second division of Kolkata League in a club you know, they asked me to stay there for some time I was doing training with them that one day they were unhappy about the food I ate.

The next morning the manager comes to you and tells you to pack your bags and that was it. Then the journey to come back home not having money for the train, fighting with the bus conductor from Ambala to Chandigarh. He was a great guy. Always remember that he still let me go for less money. And finally, I reached home after one and a half months but it never broke me.

Of course, it made me sad. And when you keep hearing no and no, you’re out of the national team, you left your school and I want to help the family. Things are not going your way. But I could have given up but it was just like sink or swim there was no other option for me. And I had to do it, regardless of how many rejections come my way. I've learned this in my life that whenever something happens, there is always something behind that experience.

What was the turning point of your football career?

The best period of my life which turned me from Sandy to Sandesh Jhingan. I would call those three years, which from outside you say were the worst period of your life basically. That is where I felt I went so down in the dark than when I came out, I was reborn. So those three years of I don't like to call it a failure or rejections or injuries or this and that I like to call it three years of the extreme learning process.

I went for trials in United Sikkim in Division II of I-League, with Mr. Bhaichung Bhutia who was my wallpaper on my phone for many years. Then they invited me for trials and I gave trials for two and a half months because we had three different coaches. First I gave a trial, he told me he will sign me but he got sacked. Then we had another Portuguese coach, he said, okay I'm going to sign you, that he got sacked after one tournament, and then Philippe De Ridder, this Belgian coach, for him also I gave trials for one month. Then finally, I got the contract and then I never looked back.

You have seen so many ups and downs in your career. What’s your mantra to remain focused?

Never lose sight of that dream, whatever happens, happens for a reason…you’ll face a thousand setbacks. If you want something so strongly, so badly, then nothing else seems big to you. You’re just so much into that dream. It has helped me having that mindset through football, which I learnt: If you want to become a national level player, represent your country, just focus.  That’s one thing, when I wanted to play for my country, and I wanted to become a professional footballer whatever happened was a great learning process and sports always taught me that never take things too much to your heart also.

Because we have these emotions every day, now I have to go for my training, in one hour. I might have a very bad session, someone might beat me, you feel gutted, feel very angry. The next day, you have a good session and the whole feeling is gone. This cycle just keeps going, so this thing also, you have to learn not to take things so much to heart, like what happens, happens, you know. Tomorrow’s a new day.

Watch Sandesh Jhingan's full interview with Forbes India below: 

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