CHENNAI: AS soon as the referee confirmed the most improbable of results, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu fell to the ground, flat on his stomach and screamed into the turf at the Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium in Doha. It was only a draw but it was also Indian football’s biggest result in recent memory; only a sepia-toned flashback to the time India were playing in Olympics and dominating Asiads will throw up a more significant result. India had held the defending Asian champions Qatar to a 0-0 draw on their own turf, in a competitive match. And no one could take more credit for that result than the man lying prone on the grass.
Sure, there were a lot of takeways from the game for coach Igor Stimac, who himself deserves a few pats on the back for drilling the team into such a compact unit in a relatively short period of time. There was a spell when Udanta Singh was a handful for defenders who were rubbing shoulders with Leo Messi and Sergio Aguero in the Copa America a couple of months ago. The young midfield duo of Sahal Abdul Samad and Anirudh Thapa made fans sit up and wonder how good the team would be in a few years when they were both older, wiser and, hopefully, a bit stronger. Manvir Singh put in a good shift as the irreplaceable Sunil Chhetri’s replacement while the central defenders Sandesh Jhingan and Adil Khan made up for defensive lapses by putting everything they had into the final tackle.
But none were as dominant as captain-for-the-day Gurpreet, nickednamed Spiderman, who pulled off an astounding eleven saves to keep the Qataris at bay, many of them by the tip of his fingers and at full stretch. He was called into action twice in the opening exchanges and kept busy for the entirety of the game. The Qataris fired 27 shots at him, yet they failed to find a creak or a crevice in the wall in India’s goal. Only three other goalkeepers have denied Qatar in 2019 — they were wearing the colours of Brazil, Argentina and Colombia.
“Gurpreet was outstanding yesterday (Tuesday),” said former India custodian Bhaskar Ganguly. “He is the best Indian goalkeeper right now and is still improving. It was one of best displays by an Indian goalkeeper on the international stage.”
A display like that, wearing the captain’s armband, with the likes of Barcelona legend Xavi looking on from the stands, is the highest point of Gurpreet’s journey so far. It has taken him to Norway, where he endured freezing, lonely winters and earned peanuts, just so he could polish his game. It has taken him through some of India’s best clubs and made him turn out, albeit briefly, in a Europa League game. And as he screamed into the grass at the Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium, there was a sense that everything so far had been building up to this.
Occasionally, when he finds himself with time to kill, Gurpreet takes out his notebook and does a quick sketch, often of comic book superheroes. On Tuesday night, he could have taken a look in the mirror and found another superhero to sketch.