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Indian keepers benefit from overseas stints

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Gurpreet talking with goalkeeping coach Espen Granli
Gurpreet talking with goalkeeping coach Espen Granli

New Delhi :  Indian football goalkeepers Subrata Paul and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu are hoping to bank on their Scandinavian experiences – but aren’t building castles in the air.

Paul has a clearer picture of the goalkeeping world after his six-month stint with Danish Superliga side FC Vikings and says Indian goalkeepers are as good as any. Gurpreet has now been roped by Norwegian side Stabaek FC and he wants to use the three-year contract as the stepping stone towards more bigger leagues in Europe.

Unlike their predecessors, Paul and Sandhu refused to build castles in the air; they were realistic in not looking to play in the glamorous football leagues and instead chose Scandinavian leagues to make a mark.

Paul’s Danish hosts Superliga side FC Vikings might have been thoroughly impressed with the video of his work in the 2009 Nehru Cup final against Syria wherein he showed his remarkable approach, anticipation and reflexes diving left and right and tipping the ball over to save three shots to win the game for India.

Sandhu, 22, last week landed himself a three-year contract from Norwegian club Stabaek FC.

Paul, 28, however, didn’t get to play in the Superliga, but managed seven games with the reserve side in the Denmark Reserves League.

Paul, who will be playing for Mumbai City FC in the inaugural season of the Indian Super League (ISL), said his brief stint was a big eye opener for him and he is happy that Sandhu has gone out at the right age.

“I feel very happy for him. It was the right age for him to go aboard. The best part is that he has been given a three-year contract. Even if he doesn’t make it to the first team in the first two years, I am sure he will have a good chance by the third year,” Paul told IANS.

Going by his own experience, Paul, who was nicknamed ‘Spiderman’ by the South Korean media for his exploits in the 2011 Asian Cup, said the six months that he had spent with the Vikings has been an experience that made him tough.

“In countries like Denmark, Norway and Sweden the game is fast and physical. To survive there you have to be very tough and always on top of your game,” said Paul.

Sandhu, a former East Bengal goalkeeper, on his part wants to use his stint with Norwegian club Stabaek FC as a stepping stone towards better European leagues.

“I want to see myself as a better goalkeeper after this stint. But I don’t want to settle with this, I want to use this as a platform to take a step higher and get noticed by bigger leagues in Europe,” Sandhu told IANS from Baerum, the club’s base in Oslo’s suburb.

Sandhu, who is among the probables for next month’s Asian Games, thanked former Sheffield United goalkeeper John Burridge, who had helped him get his break in European football. It was Burridge who had spotted Sandhu and facilitated his trial at Wigan Athletic. Though Sandhu couldn’t impress Wigan, Burridge developed a liking for the Indian youngster.

“It was Burrdige, who requested Stabaek’s football coach Espen Granli to have a look at me. I spent two-and-a half months in Norway before they gave me a three-year contract,” said Gurpreet.

Both Paul and Sandhu feel it is very difficult for Asian goalkeepers to make the cut in European clubs.

“Golkeeper is a position that a coach doesn’t want to tinker with. It is a fixed position. So for any Asian goalkeeper it is very difficult to break in the big league,” said Sandhu.

Paul himself had a long stint as the No.1 goalkeeper under former India coach Bob Houghton.

“The right age to get into Europe is in your teens. That’s when clubs are more interested. If you start early there are more chances of breaking into the leagues quickly. And being a goalkeeper I know that coaches don’t prefer to experiment too much with keepers. So the second and third goalkeepers have to mostly warm the bench,” said Paul.

Sandhu was shocked when Granali told him that he was the oldest overseas goalkeeper he had ever signed for the club.

“The goalkeeping coach said I was the oldest keeper he signed from a foreign country. But again there is a perception that it is very difficult for Asian keepers to make it to Europe,” he said.

Sandhu was mighty impressed with the training system in Norway.

“There is a huge difference. The main focus on goalkeepers is on distribution. They also simulate different match situations and for us to react in different situations. The football here is fast and players are not afraid of taking risks. We have to think on your feet and fast. You bat an eyelid and you are lost,” he said.

Paul added that the scouting system is comprehensive and something that is not possible in India.

“In smaller countries like Sweden, Denmark and Norway the scouting system is very comprehensive. If you are good, you will be spotted. I have seen so many young footballers, who were extremely good but couldn’t make it because they were never spotted. There is talent in India but we don’t handle them properly,” said Paul, who hopes to return to Denmark next season.

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