"I have always believed that my potential... well, that the sky's the limit."
Sandesh Jhingan has always had a bit of the cult hero about him -- the hair, the beard, the muscles, the blood and thunder tackles. When he speaks, he says things that you expect most heroes to say, about his sky-high potential, and how "I'm just a kid who's running after that [potential]. A kid who dreams big, and works hard for it." He tells you to "dream big, and work harder." It's all cliches if you just listen to the words -- "I believe if I put in the work, I can be anywhere, can do anything" -- but look at the actions that accompany them, and it's a whole new ball game. When you walk the talk, cliches become home truths.
He was one of the first breakthrough stars of the newly minted Indian Super League (ISL). In six years with the Kerala Blasters, he was adopted by the state as one of her own. He was rejected by clubs in the lower divisions in Kolkata early on in his career, and ended up signing for the biggest of them all -- ATK Mohun Bagan. He's been a regular for the national team for half a decade, and is one of the first names on Igor Stimac's team sheet. And now, he'll play first division football in Croatia.
He is one of only two India internationals who are plying their trade in a European first division -- the other being the great Bala Devi, at Rangers FC -- and takes a step very few before him have taken. He's not scared, though. "I have always been someone who has taken decisions to be outside his comfort zone. If there is no risk involved, it means you are too relaxed. I believe the moment you start feeling comfortable, you need to take another step up, keep making yourself uncomfortable..."
It's a step up alright. The club he has signed for, HNK Sibenik (pronounced She-benik), are an interesting outfit. They had been under financial duress, before Colombian investors Football Smart International bought it off the city administration. (A piece of trivia for Game of Thrones fans here -- if you've seen Braavos, well, that's Sibenik)
The club were promoted to the first division last season after eight years in the lower leagues, and finished sixth -- a couple of places off European qualification. This is a serious team, with very serious ambition.
For Eduardo Zapata, the club's CEO, the move to get Jhingan made all kinds of sense. They had put out a requirement for a particular kind of centre-back, and his was one of the names that popped up. Their analytics department had pored over game footage, analysed his performances, and studied his development. They had got glowing recommendations from everyone they spoke to -- especially Stimac, the national team coach.
"First of all, he's a good player - I don't care whether he's from India or Argentina, what's important is that he's good," says Zapata. "We saw his quality and then we saw a nice opportunity. We all agreed [on his quality], and at the end the decision was made by the coach who is the one who has to work with him."
Their coach, Mario Rosas, is one of the assembly-line of coaches that have come out of Barcelona's famed 'La Masia' (Rosas played over a hundred games for Barca B) and he too had spoken with his connections in Indian football before signing off on the deal.
It's not just the footballing side Zapata saw, though. He recognised in Jhingan a rare quality -- leadership. "I am a person who likes the development of young players. Before Sibenik, I was with America de Cali and one of our great achievements was to be champions with five U-21 players in the starting XI," he says. "Now, something key for the formation and development of young players is to have good leaders inside and outside the pitch. For me, Sandesh, and two-three players we already have in the squad, can bring us this... [he is] a good role model, he's a disciplined guy, he's [a family man], he's centred, focused and this is the kind of person we want to have inside the club."
Jhingan saw this side of the club immediately. He was at the Stadion Subicevac where he saw his new team dismantle Hrvatski Dragovoljac 6-2 this weekend, but what impressed him most was what he saw around the pitch. The infrastructure, the academy, the commitment to youth (there are several youth teams at several age groups starting at U-7).
HNK Sibenik are in a spell of bother at the moment -- Sunday's win was their first in five games -- but Jhingan has never been one to run away from a fight. He's chosen to not see out his lucrative contract with ATK Mohun Bagan (a five-year deal that made him, reportedly, the highest paid Indian in the ISL) because he simply couldn't miss out on the challenge that playing in a European first division would offer him. It didn't matter that the wages may be lower, because "I have always chosen glory over gold."
He's not concerned that he may not make the starting XI right away, either. "If I can put in the work, if I can stay disciplined, then I can see myself getting into the starting XI. If I don't get in, then I just need to put in more effort. It's always about how I am trying to get better -- it's going to be challenging, but I trust my work ethic and my [footballing skill]. I always believe it's on me, whether I play or not."
And so, as the Indian men's national team gathers in Kolkata for Stimac's latest camp, one man will be out in little Sibenik (population 40,000) crashing into Croatian and Colombian and Argentine ankles on one of their club's three training grounds, embarking on the latest chapter of what has already been a pretty fun career.
In GRR Martin's fantastic world, Braavos had a 'Titan' -- a giant with fire in his eyes who would wade into the sea and smash enemies. Now, Sibenik have got one of their own.