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 By John Duerden

India's Gurpreet Singh is carving his own path in European football

India goalkeeper Gupreet Singh Sandhu
Gurpreet Singh Sandhu is the only Indian currently plying his trade in Norwegian football.

Gurpreet Singh Sandhu does not have too much time at the moment to contemplate the future of Indian football. The goalkeeper is doing his best to try and preserve Stabaek's place in Norway's top tier. The 2008 champions have had a poor season by their usual standards and the club are in the middle of a relegation playoff.

Jerv, a second-tier team, took the first leg at home 1-0 but there is still a chance for Stabaek to bounce back on Sunday when the action comes to the suburbs of Oslo and the comforts of home.

"The conditions were harsh, the pitch was icy and unplayable. You should have seen it. It was like diving on the road," Sandhu told ESPN FC. "They got a free kick outside the box but I hope we can pull it around. We are a better team, I think."

Relegation to the second tier is not on the agenda of the Indian captain.

"It is very important to stay at the top. There are good players who are coming through the ranks. I have one more year on my contract and I would prefer to be here," he said. 

The two years so far have been fruitful, though the football road from Punjab to Norway really is the one less-travelled. After being spotted playing in India's I-League in 2011 by former Blackpool, Wolves and QPR goalkeeper John Burridge, he was on his way to Oslo in 2014.

Not only did he become the first Indian to play in Norway, he was the first to play a competitive game in any European top tier. The fact that he is a goalkeeper, and still just 24, makes the ambition and achievement all the more impressive.

"If you want to grow, you have to take a risk, you have to go the hard way," said Gupreet.

"People take the easy way. I wanted to push myself. I wanted to play in Europe, to become better and reach my peak. I just didn't see myself doing that in India and I think I have proven that in the last two years."

He has come a long way. There was a certain bemusement at the club when a young Indian goalkeeper arrived.

"They were like 'hmm, OK?' They were confused. They wondered if I was a Norwegian citizen with Indian parents or had I travelled all the way from India to come to Norway and play football."

There is no confusion any more. He has shown his worth to the team, and there are no more questions about whether an Indian goalkeeper can thrive on icy pitches and frigid Scandinavian conditions.

Unsurprisingly, he is not the same player or person now, and not because he has had to learn how to cook for himself (he is not the biggest fan of Norwegian food), receiving lessons from his mother via Skype.

"The mentality is the biggest thing in Europe. You can't get that in India, the strong football mentality that makes you compete every day, to give 100 percent every day and to have the patience to wait for your chance," he said.

"Then there is the training. The players you play with and compete against are better and they make you better."

Gupreet Singh Sandhu
Gupreet, left, is a mainstay in the India national football team under coach Stephen Constantine.

And then you have the coaches, with Bob Bradley the one who made the biggest difference in Gupreet's career.

"Bob is the best coach I have played under. He is so strong mentally and he will push you to your limits and make you a better player. He wants everything, wants us to play football and taught the players so many things," said the talented stopper.

Sandhu is watching his former coach's progress in the Premier League with Swansea City. "If given time, he will be a success, I am sure of that. If you give him only 10 games, it is difficult," he said.

Following in Bradley's footsteps across the North Sea would be a dream come true.

"I'd like to go to England. I want to play at least the Championship level and see if I can be success. India has good connections with England and there are lots of Indian people there. Indians know about English football too," he said.

Despite playing cricket as a boy, Sandhu was not a natural at India's national game but he soon found football.

When he played with India's Under-17 team against Manchester United in England, he was delighted when a member of staff remarked that he was as tall as Edwin van der Sar.

"It stuck with me. If I am as tall as him, I can do the things he does. I used to watch him and replicate the moves that he used to do in the games," he said.

Ali Al Habsi, the Omani goalkeeper who played in the Premier League for Bolton Wanderers and Wigan Athletic, is another role model.

After being named in India's 2011 Asian Cup squad as a teenager, Sandhu is the established No. 1 in India and ready next year to lead the team through qualification for the 2019 Asian Cup.

"We have been there before and can do it again. We are in a transition period with the players we have right now. Two years ago, we didn't have experience and now we do. With more time, we will grow," he said.

Now more players are following in his footsteps.

"I hope I can help them in any way possible. I try to convince them to go overseas. If they have the right mentality, it can be great for them and India too," he added.

Asian expert John Duerden is the author of Lions and Tigers: Story of Football in Singapore and Malaysia.Twitter: @JohnnyDuerden.

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