For the Glove of the Globe

In A 4-3-3, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu Is The 1 That Gets Left Out. Our Six-Foot-Six-Inch Giant Opened Up About The Things That Matter, On And Off The Pitch, And How His Travels, Travails And Responsibility To The Planet Have Made Him The Person He Is…

His isn’t the hand you’d want to meet half-way for a high-five, but then Gurpreet Singh Sandhu keeps turning up with the kind of quips that make you want to take the chance. Fortunately for his close circle, there’s so much more to the boy than just football and a very funny bone. Gurpreet bats for mental health awareness, cycles most days to training, uses solar energy for a few of his needs and takes garbage segregation very seriously. He wants to save the planet as much as he wants to save goals.

“There are days when I ask myself what cave was I living in all this while, completely oblivious to how we have changed the environment and climate around us. It makes me wish we were taught more about this in school and about how we could change things for the better. It’s only over the last couple of years that I’ve begun reading up more and walking the talk. To realise that I’ve contributed to depleting the planet, hit me in the gut.”

Slowly, but surely, the effort to contribute positively began. “I started using the cycle to reach training, stooped using the air conditioner at home, began segregating my waste, turned vegan. All of this has given me a new perspective on life, and has even changed my values as a person. There are a lot of people who think what I do is a little crazy, but I can only wish that they understood the magnanimity of what we as a human race are faced with and how every small act matters,” tells Gurpreet.

Gurpreet may be modest in labelling his acts as small, but there’s no running away from how big his exploits have been in Bengaluru FC’s goal this season. While everyone around seems to be obsessing about the club’s uncharacteristic drought of sorts in front of goal, Gurpreet and the Blues’ defence have quietly gone about notching as many six clean sheets, while conceding only seven times in eleven games – the least among teams this season. The winner of the Golden Glove last season, Gurpreet is firmly on track for an encore.

“I sleep well after a win. I sleep really, really well after a win with a clean sheet. If we’ve won 2-1 and you see me taking a little time to celebrate it, it is because I’m kicking myself for letting that ball get past me once. We walk into every game with the mentality of it being a final, and our best chance to win it will come if I don’t concede. But football has its own ways and goalkeeper will always concede more than they will keep clean sheets. I’ve chosen this life and I have to deal with the harshness of it,” says Gurpreet.

But Gurpreet knows more than a thing a thing or two about travails. ‘Indian footballer signs with Norwegian club’ made for a dreamy headline in August 2014. But behind all the gloss and history-making, was a three-year spell of relentless toil and mental combat, handing out lessons that don’t make it to any life or sporting manual. “Looking back at my stint in Norway, I feel each and every day taught me something new and so much of it was to do with being mentally strong. I vividly remember this one day where I couldn’t wait any longer for the bus and decided to dart to training. Half-way through, I slipped on ice, ripped my denims on one leg and had a bruise on the other. The only thing on my mind was to pick myself up, wade through the snow and make it to training on time. I went through the paces with a lot of pain, but for someone who was swimming against the tide to earn a spot on the team, I knew I couldn’t afford to miss a single session. It doesn’t help that you go back home and have no one to share this with. What it does teach you that there’s only one direction to move – forward,” says Gurpreet.

For someone with a massive frame and an athletic exterior, it’s the mental aspect of the game that Gurpreet feels and speaks strongly about. Bengaluru conceded at the death to drop points on three occasions this season so far, and the blow it dealt the dressing room went beyond the points table. How much does it bother Gurpreet that he’s the last body the ball gets past when his side concede?

“Situations like these used to always keep me down for days. You needlessly connect every mistake to something you started and before you know it, you’ve crucified yourself for the fault. It’s really hard and takes the kind of toll on your mental you cannot imagine. Only recently I got help from a professional and we worked on how to manage these situations better, more so after games. And I can tell you, it helped. Do I feel bad about errors I make on the pitch or results that don’t go our way? Yes. But I don’t lose sleep over it, because I am learning to work my way through the lows. As men – and especially footballers, we tend to bottle up our feelings. But trust me when I tell you there’s no shame in opening up to someone. I’ve started doing it now, because like they say, you need be the change you want to see.”

The world could definitely do with a few more ’keepers cut from the cloth that Gurpreet’s draped himself in.