Words by Arjun
Name: Sandesh Jhingan
Club: Sporting Goa
Position: Centre Back
Indians seldom get the opportunity look at a local footballer and go, “This guy is an exciting prospect; I cannot wait for him to become a star.” The last player who made me feel that way was Sunil Chhetri, who’s currently the captain of the Indian national team and making his mark as one of the best strikers ever produced by the country.
Sandesh Jhingan, unlike Chhetri and other Indian players in the past, has come to the fore in what is a revolutionary period in Indian football. His rise to prominence coincides with a paradigm shift in the national footballing scene as the officials have accepted the need to revamp it. This allows him to develop in a relatively obstacle free environment compared to his predecessors. He has a plethora of readily accessible resources to facilitate his growth such as the Indian Super League, which has played a tremendous role in thrusting a number of talented Indian footballers (including Jhingan) before the public eye through nationwide television broadcasts, social media and other means. This is in contrast to the past generations where you’d only know a good player if you actively and diligently followed Indian football.
As a trainee at St. Stephens’ Football Academy, Jhingan helped his side reach the South-East Asian finals of the Manchester United Premier Cup. He also won the Dr BC Roy Trophy representing his state at U19 level. His solid showings at these tournaments were spotted by AFC Hall of Fame inductee Baichung Bhutia, and signed him up for his club, United Sikkim in December 2011. Bhutia, who also enjoys legendary status among Indian football fans, branded Sandesh Jhingan as one of the best defenders in the country at the moment.
United Sikkim were languishing in the 2nd Division of India’s I-League when Jhingan was roped in. In his first season, he scored two goals and helped his side gain promotion to the top flight. He also realized his dream of playing alongside two of his idols – Baichung Bhutia and Renedy Singh – who were regular starters for the national team at the time.
Jhingan was slugging it out in the mediocrity that generally engulfs the domestic leagues in India, when it was announced that he would represent Kerala in the inaugural edition of the Indian Super League. His stint in the ISL with Kerala Blasters has been the highlight of his fledgling career as a large number of football lovers in India were exposed to him for the first time; and he didn’t fail to impress!
It is worth mentioning that playing in front of packed stadiums, under floodlights, alongside and against internationally renowned players was an alien concept for most Indian footballers. Yet Jhingan didn’t let the Indian Super League, which was shrouded by glitz and glamour, affect him in any way. He always seemed like a figure of tranquillity amidst the madness and tensions on the pitch.
The defender from Punjab comes across as the ideal footballer – the complete package. His technical, physical and mental prowess makes him one of India’s finest discoveries in the domain of sport in 2014.
Although his natural position is in the centre of defence, his versatility makes him equally adept at playing anywhere across the backline. In fact, for most part of the ISL, he was deployed on the right and left sides of defence by Kerala Blasters’ player-manager David James.
When in possession, he strides forward with authority. His ability to pass the ball fearlessly and with pinpoint accuracy even in the final third projects a sense of self-confidence that you wouldn’t normally associate with Indian footballers. His clever overlapping runs on the flanks afford his teammates an additional and highly reliable option going forward. His superhuman work rate allows him to track back and help thwart opposition attacks, hardly breaking a sweat in the process.
At the first instance, you wouldn’t think physicality was one of Jhingan’s strengths. However, at 6’2, he was a formidable presence in Kerala’s defence. He won aerial duels with ease, and as part of a defensive unit comprising Colin Falvey, Cedric Hengbart, Nirmal Chhetri and goalkeeper David James, Kerala’s defence seemed impregnable (at least on paper). His dominance in one-on-one situations was unbelievable as he consistently outmuscled international athletes such as Nicolas Anelka, Elano Blumer, Andre Moritz, Robert Pires and many others.
Over the course of the tournament he earned himself the title of Mr. Consistency before going on to bag the Emerging Player of the Tournament Award – presented to the best Indian player of the tournament. He also won the All India Football Federation’s (AIFF) Emerging Player of the Year Award last year.
These awards haven’t made him lose sight of his objectives though. He said, “Never let praise change the cause of mind – I am a firm believer in this. The awards don’t make me different at all. I still have a long way to go and there are still many areas that need improvement. But yeah, the awards make me more confident in my abilities – that’s the only difference.”
His maturity and attitude towards football as at such a young age is remarkable. He recounts: “Once, I was doing a training drill and I was struggling. The coach then told me that since I couldn’t do it, I should stop practising it. It really annoyed me that I was discouraged by the coach – I was only 15 years old! I never want to hear anyone telling me that I cannot do something on the pitch.”
Some of the decisions he’s made from a career standpoint are bold – yet noble:
In 2012, Jhingan received offers to try out for two Chinese top division clubs. He was just about to board the plane to Beijing when he was informed of his inclusion in India’s U23 squad. He immediately cancelled his flight and headed for the national football camp to realize his dream of representing India. Unfortunately, he suffered a knee injury on just his second day at the camp and was ruled out for a month.
However, he wasn’t put off by these setbacks. In fact he strongly believes his experiences with the injuries he has suffered have only made him a stronger person both in mind and body.
Jhingan has now signed for Sporting Clube de Goa in the I-League after evoking strong interest from European clubs in Spain, Denmark, Turkey and Switzerland, whom he impressed greatly with his performances in the Indian Super League. Unfortunately, most of these invites for trials were too close to transfer deadline day and could not be completed. If he continues to grow at the same rate though – which I’m confident he will – it won’t be long before he finds himself in one of these European leagues.