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India goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu: “We want to challenge bigger opponents”

The Indian football team has been on a roll, winning the Intercontinental Cup and SAFF Championships. Lounge speaks to goalkeeper Sandhu on what lies ahead

Gurpreet Singh Sandhu has been a commanding presence in goal for India.
Gurpreet Singh Sandhu has been a commanding presence in goal for India. (AIFF Media)

A cursory self-motivating clap, and away he went. Gurpreet Singh Sandhu jumped left, stretched his 6’ 4” frame, and punched away the strike from Kuwait captain Haijah, in sudden death, in the final of the SAFF (South Asian Football Federation) Championships on 4 July.

It was a picture-perfect end to the Indian football team’s glorious run in the past two months, which saw them bag two titles: the Intercontinental Cup and the SAFF Championships. India are unbeaten in 2023 and have risen to 99 in the FIFA rankings.

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Gurpreet’s contribution between the goalposts has been crucial, as India has kept nine clean sheets in the 11 matches they have played this season. He had made a crucial save in the penalty shootout against Lebanon in the SAFF semifinal as well. But rather than cooling his heels in the off-season, the goalkeeper took up a short training stint, at his former club Stabaek FC in Norway, immediately after his SAFF heroics.

With the focus firmly on the Asian Cup, which will be held in Qatar in January-February 2024, India’s No. 1 goalkeeper knows the road ahead will only get tougher. In an interview with Lounge, the 31-year-old talks about penalty shootouts, India’s unbeaten streak and the players’ growing confidence. Edited excerpts:

Did you enjoy being back in Norway?

Everything is the same, the country is beautiful. I am thankful to them for allowing me to use their facilities. I spoke to the goalkeeping coach, Mr/ Espen Granli, and told him I had a few days in July and would love to come up here and train with him. When I spent three years here, he helped me a lot, pushed me to be a better keeper. 

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Indian football is on quite a streak at the moment, unbeaten in the 11 matches they have played so far. How do you account for this form?

It’s something that we should be proud of. At the same time, not get too ahead of ourselves. We want to be a good team and challenge even bigger opponents. Keep pushing ourselves. Sunil (Chhetri) bhai had also said, “The more you achieve success the closer you are to failure.” We have to make sure we maintain consistency.

How do you think the team has grown in the last two-three years?

The time that we spent together, the long days in camp helped. And individually, as players, we have grown. Lot of composure, lot of confidence was shown by players on the ball. Now the players don’t play too safe. Trying things without worrying too much of the consequences is something that the players are getting the grasp of, which is great. 

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Your performances in the two penalty shootouts were key in India retaining the SAFF Championship. How do you prepare for them?

I had my fair share of experience in the ISL (Indian Super League) in penalties. I went in knowing how it feels to be on losing side and on the winning side. I knew that if I do things correctly, I’ll get close to at least one. That’s the promise I made to the players. I tell them, “Don’t worry, you just keep every single one in the frame and I’ll try to save one, I promise you I will, because that’s what I’m here for.” And I was very lucky to get my hands on not one but two, in the semifinal and the final.

I try to follow my routine, try to read the player who is going to take the kick, try to remember which position he plays. It helps facing players in penalty shootout in training; and trying to figure out, ‘ok a centre-back does this, a striker does that in penalty shootout.’ Just try to read the situation and react. 

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The Asian Cup is still some time away. What kind of impact do you think the run in the last two months have had on the team?

This is good experience for us. But there is still time for the Asian Cup. The matches that we will play from now on are the ones which will help us know more about the competition; what kind of players will be available for us. Hopefully we get to play against teams which are, if not Australia, but at the same level as them to understand how challenging it might be when we get there. 

You went with the Indian team for the 2011 Asian Cup…

Yes, I was the waterboy.

How has the journey with the Indian team been from then to now?

Unbelievable. I never thought that I’ll be able to stay for that long when I started out. I wasn’t able to contribute much in the 2011 Asian Cup, except getting water for the likes of Sunil Chhetri. In 2019, I got an opportunity to contribute a little bit. And hopefully now, in this third one that I’m going to be a part of, I am there for the team, in any capacity. It helps to have some people who have experienced things like the Asian Cup. We try to understand the dressing room, try to create an atmosphere where everyone is focused and doing their job until the last moment.

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The ISL has now made football a viable profession in India. How important is it for players, especially youngsters, keep pushing to go and play abroad?

Exposure is very important. Being in a comfort zone is very easy. If someone at a young age has the opportunity to go out and test themselves, they should do it. Even if it is for a week or 10 days like me here. You need to keep on exploring, pushing yourself. Doesn’t have to be Europe, it can be Thailand or Japan or anywhere else. It’s just about not being in your comfort zone for too long.

Deepti Patwardhan is a Mumbai-based sportswriter.

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