Gurpreet Singh Sandhu’s ground-breaking journey through uncharted territory reached the most important milestone as he became the first Indian footballer to play for the first team in the top-flight Europa League.
Standing at a towering 6 feet and four inches, the Indian national team goalkeeper started for Norwegian Tippeligaen club Stabaek FC in an Europa League qualifier against Welsh side Connah’s Quay Nomads FC in an away match in Rhyl, Wales yesterday evening.
The Europa League is a rung below the UEFA Champions League.
His night was, however, cut short by a hand injury that prompted a change after 28 minutes of play and brought into action Sayouba Mande, the team’s first choice custodian till this match.
“I am proud but also disappointed that it had to end due to an injury. But then again they are part and parcel of the game and we can’t do anything about them,” the 24-year-old Gurpreet told PTI before leaving for Norway.
The Indian, who has already started his recovery session in the gymnasium, is all but ruled out of the second leg.
He added: “I will have an x-ray taken in some time and we will see. But I am more or less ruled out of the second leg game. I am still looking forward to the future matches and there will be few play-offs.”
While he has slowly walked his way into the starting XI at the expense of the more experienced custodian from Ivory Coast, Sandhu has been the number one goalkeeper in the Indian team since Stephen Constantine took over in 2015, with the English coach preferring him over veteran Subrata Paul.
Sandhu, who signed for Stabaek in 2014, made headlines in May when he became the first Indian to start in the first team in a top-division league of Europe. In that match against IK Start in the Norwegian Tippeligaen, he kept a clean sheet in a 5-0 away victory.
Gurpreet is now the only Indian to play for the first team in a top-division league of Europe. Mohammed Salim, former captain Bhaichung Bhutia and current national skipper Sunil Chhetri have all played abroad, but they were never able to break into the first team.
Bengal footballer Salim played for Scottish top-tier side Celtic FC in 1936, but he did not feature in the premier division.
Bhutia played for English third division side Bury FC in 1999-2000 and current national skipper Chhetri played for the ‘B’ team of Sporting Lisbon in 2012. Sandhu, who is from Mohali in Punjab, has gone one step ahead.