Gurpreet Sandhu's unlikely journey from Chandigarh to Norway


A little over 12 hours since making history as the first Indian to have started a football match in a European continental club competition, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu is fretting about the results of a scan on his right hand later tonight after he returns to Norway.

On Thursday, Sandhu helped his club, Stabaek, hold Connah's Quay of Wales to a 0-0 draw in the first leg of their Europa League qualifier. But his own participation was restricted to 30 minutes since an injury meant he had to make way in goal for Mande Sayouba.

"I punched the striker in the head rather than the ball," Sandhu told ESPN. "I think it looks like I might be out for a couple of weeks. The return leg is on July 7. I will definitely miss the league game this weekend (against Sogndal), but let's hope I can make it for that [the July 7 match]."

Growing up in Chandigarh, an eight-year-old Sandhu harboured dreams of playing cricket like most Indian children. An enrolment at the Punjab Cricket Association Academy in Mohali followed, with his "cricket-crazy" father "living his dream" through his son.

"I didn't think I was very good at it," Sandhu said. "I didn't want to keep going for it if I wasn't very good."

Football, Sandhu said, chose him rather than the other way around. He never watched much football - either as a child or even later when he got picked for the India Under-16 team in 2007. But a chance encounter with Blackpool legend John Burridge in 2011 altered the course of his career.

"I was playing for East Bengal at the time and Budgie (Burridge), Carlton Palmer and Joe Morrison had come to Kolkata to cover the (East Bengal-Mohun Bagan) derby," said Sandhu. "Budgie came to me when I was training and he said, 'Son, you're wasting your time here; why don't you try your luck in Europe?' I thought to myself, Sunilbhai (Indian captain Sunil Chhetri) has also played abroad. So why not."

The move to foreign climes eventually took place in 2014, with the aid of Morrison who also doubles as his agent, but Sandhu would realise how difficult that transition could be fairly early on.

"The first obvious challenge is the atmosphere -- the pace of the game and the quality of the game was much bigger than what I had ever experienced or ever personally played at," he said. "I realised it would take a lot of hard work to match the players or go beyond their quality. I took a couple of years to adjust. Before I made my start, I felt like I was wasting my time. But then I thought if I give up now, then what was the whole point of having come here? Besides, being a 'keeper, you need to be patient, because you only have that one slot in a team."

Norway wasn't easy either, especially for a young man who says he had to take cooking lessons from his mother and sister over Skype. "It is a beautiful country, but it is very expensive as a place," Sandhu said. "I don't think I have been able to teach the guys too much Punjabi, apart from some gaalis (swear words). I am still coming to terms with Norway after two years."

These two years of waiting have helped Sandhu polish his game. More than anything, he feels the knowledge that "it is not okay to make mistakes" has simply made him mentally tougher than he was when he left for Norway. He feels he can see that improvement every time he plays for India now.

That patience came in handy when Stabaek's Scottish manager Billy McKinlay announced the starting eleven after practice on Monday. "He told us that he was going with the same combination that he had used in the 5-0 win against IK Start," Sandhu said. "It gave me some relief, I thought the hard work I've been doing was paying off."