Kolkata: Now at the peak of his football career, Indian national team’s central defender Sandesh Jhingan had anything going for him this season. At 28, he was voted the Player of the Year by All India Football Federation (AIFF) for 2021 season while he had just switched over to ATK Mohun Bagan, former champions and now runners-up of Indian Super League (ISL), for a lucrative deal.
However, a serious desire to get out of his ‘comfort zone,’ as the bearded leader of Indian defence calls it, made him look for opportunities to play in one of the European leagues of a developed footballing nation. He has been roped in by HNK Sibenik, a Croatian club which plays in their top-tier league Prva HNL. The season has started for them and Jhingan has joined the squad in practice there, though it may take him another week to complete the paperwork to be eligible to make the field.
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“If you have monitored my career, I have always preferred to take to take decisions outside my comfort zone. I wanted to go somewhere... I always have this thing in my mind that sky is the limit,” the articulate Jhingan said during a zoom interaction with selected Indian media on Thursday. The 10-team top tier league of Croatia may not be exactly among the bige league in Europe but to be selected from the 105th ranked India by their talent scouts for a developed footballing nation (Croatia are the current runners-up of 2018 Fifa World Cup and ranked 18th) is certainly a testimony of his abilities.
It’s not everyday that a Indian footballer manages to clear the acid test of playing in the European countries - there have been only a handful of examples including the talismanic Baichung Bhutia and Sunil Chhetri - and their success rate has also not been extra ordinary. The last men’s footballer was goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu for Norwegian club FC Stabaek in 2014, for whom he turned out in a number of Europa league qualifiers.
The interesting aspect about Jhingan’s move was the economics of it - a move to the Croatian club would actually see him playing with a 30% salary of what he would have received from ATK Mohun Bagan this year, but the footballer is game.
‘‘I am a person who has always chosen glory over money. I hope that this move will enhance my game as well as me as a person. If I can put in the work, if I stay disciplined enough then I can see if I can get into the starting XI. It’s quite challenging but I trust myself and my work ethic,’’ Jhingan said.
Sandesh made his senior national team debut in 2015 in Guwahati and has since then, has gone on to make 40 appearances for the Blue Tigers, scoring four goals. He was part of the Indian sides that lifted the Hero Intercontinental Cup in 2018 and played out a memorable draw at the home of the Asian champions Qatar in 2019.
Asked what was the X-factor about the footballer from Chandigarh which fascinated them, Eduardo Zapata, the Colombian CEO and one of the co-owners of the club, said: ‘‘Well, Sandesh had been a captain and a leader for his Indian club Kerala Blasters. He can help us in this role in an international, multi-cultural environment. We hope that he adapts quickly here and someday, we hope to play some matches in India.’’ The squad, incidentally, has around six to seven players from Colombia.
How has ISL helped you grow as a player? ‘‘It’s been a blessing for me as well as Indian football. It gave us exposure. As kids, we used to watch Premier League, La Liga etc but didn’t have a product which could match,’’ said Jhingan, who joined Kerala Blasters as a 20-year-old in the inaugural edition of the league in 2014. After a six-year stint with them which saw him rise in stature as one of the key members of the national team, he had moved to ATK Mohun Bagan till the HNK Sibenik deal matured.
Can his move, then, open the doors for more Indian players to play in European leagues? Anuj Kichlu, Director and CEO of Best of You Sports India - a Fifa-accredited agency which oversaw Jhingan’s move to Croatia - said it depended on a lot of factors. ‘‘ISL may have given Indian football more exposure, but Europe still doesn’t take Indian football seriously. Obtaining work permits for them in eastern Europe is relatively easier, but it’s almost impossible in the UK where a professional player has to come from a country ranked within top 50 in Fifa rankings and the player concerned must have played for his national team for the preceding two years,’’ Kichlu told Gulf News.
It’s tough times ahead of the lion-hearted defender, who is known to put his body on the line to avert danger. This time, he has chosen to stake his career by taking up a bigger challenge.
Indian footballers abroad: A timeline
One of the biggest ambassadors of the sport for India, Baichung Bhutia joined English second division club Bury FC in 1999 at a young age. Bhutia had signed a three-year contract after managing to clear a problem of obtaining work permit in the UK. He made 37 appearances for the club before returning to India with East Bengal.
A long-standing captain of the Indian national football team, Sunil Chhetri came close to playing for English club Queens Park Rangers but that move fell through. In 2012, he got a look-in for another European club in Sporting Lisbon but he could only play for the reserve side, where he got the opportunity to rub shoulders with current England and Tottenham Hotspur defender Eric Dier. Chhetri was always on the lookout to play overseas as back in 2010, he became the first Indian player to play in MLS in the US when he was added to the Kansas City Wizards’ 24-man roster.
The veteran shot-stopper played for Danish top division club FC Vestsjaelland, becoming the first goalkeeper from the country to earn a move abroad in 2014. Paul returned to India as a much-improved player from his stint.
Gurpeet Singh Sandhu
Now India’s No. 1 goalkeeper, Gurpreet joined Norwegian club FC Stabaek in 2014. He made his debut for the senior national team in 2015 and also featured in the Norwegian Football Cup in 2016. He became the first Indian to feature in the Uefa Europa League when he played in a qualifier for them on June 30, 2016.
Bala Devi of north eastern state Manipur created history when she became the first Indian women’s footballer to sign and play in Europe, in the historic club Rangers FC in the Scottish Premier League. She signed the contract for 18 months in January 2020. However, she had to wait almost a year to score her first goal for the club as the league was cancelled due to the pandemic. She scored her first goal against Motherwell on December 6, 2020 when coming as a substitute player, she netted the final goal in the 9-0 thrashing of Motherwell by the Rangers.