India’s number one Gurpreet Singh has returned to his homeland after three years in Norway. A busy few months await, as the Punjab native aims for AFC Cup glory with new side JSW Bengaluru and AFC Asian Cup qualification with the national team.
Two-time I-League and Federation Cup champions and AFC Cup runners-up in 2016, JSW Bengaluru’s rapid rise in just over four years of existence has been remarkable.
Yet, after advancing to the AFC Cup knockout rounds for the third successive year in May, the side from Karnataka were dealt arguably their biggest challenge to date when many of the team that had been involved in their success departed for pastures new.
In came a host of foreign players ahead of the start of the Indian Super League, while captain and Indian icon Sunil Chhetri remained.
But, amid a chaotic period of comings and goings, one signing in particular grabbed the attention: the arrival of India’s number one goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh, who was acquired from Norwegian side Stabaek following a meeting in Abu Dhabi just hours before the transfer deadline.
It was a major coup, the homecoming of a man who had broken new ground outside the South Asian country. Singh is only the fifth Indian to play professionally in Europe and the first to play a top-flight competitive match, while he is also the sole person from his country to appear in the UEFA Europa League.
Ironically, however, it was Asia’s equivalent of the Europa League – the AFC Cup – that was among the main reasons for the custodian to return to India after his three-year stint in Scandinavia.
The tournament, coupled with India’s increasing chances of progressing to the AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019, convinced the big shot-stopper that the time was right to make the move.
“I saw a very good opportunity with Bengaluru as it’s one of the very best and most professional clubs in India,” said 25-year-old Singh ahead of his competitive debut against DPR Korea’s 4.25 SC.
“The way they approached me was very professional and they were the only Indian club who wanted to play a transfer fee for me, so that shows the commitment of the club.
“Most importantly, they are playing in the AFC Cup and the level in these games is different from what you play in India. I wanted to be part of it because it’s challenging.”
Singh would go on to keep a clean sheet against 4.25 as the AFC Cup Central Asia Zonal champions claimed a 3-0 victory in the first leg of the Inter-Zone semi-finals.
The game was far from straightforward, though, as torrential rain made for tricky conditions but Bengaluru’s new goalkeeper performed admirably, collecting two deep crosses late on in a valuable home shutout.
Three weeks later in Pyongyang, Singh dived to his right to save a second-half penalty as Bengaluru held the hosts to a scoreless draw to advance to an AFC Cup Inter-Zone final with Tajikistan’s FC Istiklol and leave the side just two games away from a return to the final.
“I think [last year] Bengaluru set an example to other Indian clubs by reaching the final, so I have no doubt that we can go all the way,” added Singh.
“I hope we keep working hard, keep our heads down and try to achieve what hasn’t been achieved yet.”
After starting his career with Kolkata-based East Bengal, Singh was selected for India’s 2011 AFC Asian Cup squad in Qatar at the age of just 18.
Although he didn’t appear at the continental competition, the custodian made his India debut against Turkmenistan later that year, before signing for Stabaek in August 2014.
Undoubtedly a huge step out of his comfort zone, Singh would go on to adapt well to life in chillier climes.
A Norwegian league debut eventually arrived in May 2016 before a month later he again made history by playing in the UEFA Europa League against Welsh side Connah’s Quay Nomads, when, unfortunately, he was forced off with a hand injury.
“Luckily it was summer when I first went to Norway, so I initially adjusted [to the weather] in stages,” admitted Singh.
“But I had never experienced snowfall before so training in it was a completely different experience. Your fingers and toes go numb and if you ever get hit in the face with the ball it’s painful.
“It’s something I can always say to people that I’ve experienced; I don’t think any other player in India has done that. But the Norwegian summer is better.
“It was a very nice experience and made me learn a lot about life, made me more independent and responsible, so I have no regrets.”
With the national team, meanwhile, Singh has appeared in all three games of the Blue Tigers’ perfect start to their AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019 qualifying campaign, keeping clean sheets in wins over Myanmar, the Kyrgyz Republic and Macau.
Four more points will guarantee progression to Asia’s premier competition for the fourth time, after also appearing in 1964, 1984 and 2011.
Defeat to Guam in June 2015 – ironically, the game before Singh was installed as his country’s number one – marked the low point for the Indian team in the early stages of the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying stages.
But since then the side has recovered to perform admirably in the ensuing AFC Asian Cup qualifiers and now seem set to take their place among the continent’s elite in early 2019.
“India has seen hard times and that is something that we learn from because when you lose games you know the value of winning,” explained Singh.
“The boys we have now are a new and hungry bunch who want to learn, believe in the system we have and will give it some time.