When could Indian football fans hope to see a player from their country put on the jersey of a top European club like Manchester United, Read Madrid or Barcelona? Not anytime soon, according to national team goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, who has encouraged young Indian players to go abroad and play in foreign clubs while still in their teens, to understand and appreciate the standards in foreign football. Sandhu feels such experiences will also help improve the quality of players in Indian football.
"People in our country, who don't know much about how football works, think the road is from a Bengaluru FC to a Real Madrid or a Manchester United. That's not how it works," Sandhu, who became the first Indian to feature in a European club competition with Norwegian club Stabaek in 2016, told Indian Super League's Instagram handle on Monday morning.
"The players at the age of 16, 17, [for instance] the U-19 players that we have now. They must go outside, be it Asia or Europe. I say Europe because you have more number of foreigners."
Sandhu, who signed with Stabaek in 2014 at the age of 22, and his Bengaluru FC team-mate Sunil Chhetri, who went to Kansas City Wizards and Sporting Clube de Portugal's B team while still in his mid to late 20s, are among a handful of Indian footballers who have played abroad in recent years. Their BFC team-mate Ashique Kuruniyan spent a season with Spain's Villarreal C, while U-17 World Cupper Sanjeev Stalin was reported to have signed with Portugal C.D. Aves in February this year. Stalin is yet to feature in the team's squad, with Aves having played five Primera Liga matches since his signing, including one on June 6 after the pause due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
"Go outside at a younger age and stay there for three to four years, at a club where you can improve and then you jump from there. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to make that jump. I just got to that middle path. Chhetri bhai got to that middle path," Sandhu said. "We went so late, that we weren't able to make that jump in our careers. Any player who goes at 15 or 16 doesn't need talent, only needs hard work and mentality."
Former India captain Bhaichung Bhutia, who played for Bury FC in England as well as in Malaysia with FC Perak, had similar advice recently for younger players. "I think for you to be playing abroad, the national team has to perform. Your team has to be recognised, if not in the world, then in Asia," he had said. "You can also target Qatar, China, Japan, Korea and UAE, which have a good standard. If you can play in Europe, well and good, but you can also target leagues which are at a higher standard."
Where Indian players would once aspire to play in foreign leagues in greater numbers, that drive has reduced considerably since the launch of the franchise-based Indian Super League (ISL) in 2014, which has also improved payments for Indian players in domestic football. India's lowly FIFA ranking, which has been outside the top 100 but for a brief spell for the last 25 years, has also made it difficult for Indian players to acquire work permits to play abroad.
Chhetri had his trials at Queen's Park Rangers, while Sandhu spent a week training at Wigan Athletic in 2012. The ISL has also given Indian players a platform to play alongside superior foreign talent, but Sandhu emphasised citing his own example how training every day in Norway also made him a better professional.
"It's not about playing 90 minutes for Manchester United or Real Madrid. It's the journey that's important -- the six years, or three years, that you need to spend sitting on the bench, training day in day out with those foreign clubs," said Sandhu. "You are training day in day out, at a place with better players, better infrastructure and better weather. They matter a lot. That's what will make better players for our country."
Sandhu also related how his exit from Stabaek came at a time when head coach Bob Bradley -- former head coach of the U.S. MNT -- who had given Sandhu a start in the Europa League qualifier, had quit and the new coach wouldn't place as much faith in him.
"We had a month of a summer transfer window in Norway. We managed to talk to a first division club in Portugal called Boavista. They had three keepers at that time, and they said if you manage to go on loan somewhere else for this one season, we are ready to bring you back next season," said Sandhu, adding that this was when he zeroed in on BFC as his "layover" for a year in 2017-18.
"But once you come to BFC -- you are playing in Asia, you are playing well. The club is very ambitious and wants to win trophies. I see their vision and their belief in me as well."