Sunil Chhetri, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Subrata Pal – all of them are familiar names to Indian football fans, but strangers to Europeans. But the scenario could change earlier than expected as various Indian footballers are on their way to Europe for trials and training this summer.
Sunil Chhetri made the headlines, when the 27-year-old star striker joined the ‘B’ Team of famous Sporting Clube de Portugal [+ read more]. Sunil could gain a promotion to the ‘A’ Team depending on his performances in the months to come. India keepers Gurpreet Singh Sandhu and Subrata Pal are the next ones, who could land a deal with European clubs. Gurpreet is currently in England for a trial-cum-training with EPL side Wigan Athletic [+read more], while Subrata is set to have a trial with German 4th Division outfit RB Leipzig next week [+ read more].
Midfielder Mehtab Hossain visited Scotland recently to train with various teams over there, while Godwin Franco sweated out with clubs in Germany and Sweden. And Indian origin footballers Harmeet Singh (Feyenoord Rotterdam) and Luciano Narsingh (PSV Eindhoven) were much sought-after summer targets for top European clubs.
So are we witnessing the beginning of a new era for Indian footballers in Europe? Could this “Indian Summer” open the door for many more Indian players to fulfil their dream of playing football in Europe?
I think it was just a matter of time to see Indian players coming over to Europe and having a try to strike a deal with clubs in the continent. A key factor for this new development has been the transfer of Baichung Bhutia to England’s Bury FC in 1999. Baichung’s European journey helped a lot to change the mindset of Indian players over the last decade. Indian players favoured to stay back home in those days and they had no ambition to lock horns abroad. But a new generation of footballers grew up with Baichung as a role model and they realised that Europe could be a serious career target for them.
But Indian footballers had and still have to face prejudices to a certain extend. European clubs were not looking at Indians as a serious option for a long time and there was even an opinion that Indians “can’t play football”. But the last decade has changed things in favour of Indian football when Europe started to see India as a sleeping giant and a virtual cash cow from a business perspective.
We are now in a transitional period where Indian footballers could set a mark in Europe and influence the future of Indian football in a positive way. Footballers playing in Europe is one component of the overall roadmap to take Indian football forward. It is imperative for the development that Indian footballers have a breakthrough in Europe and gain experience to take the game to the next level. Japanese and South Korean started the “Asian wave” in Europe several years ago and people felt that these players were exotic birds. But players from Japan or South Korea proved to be valuable and they are no exceptions in European club football nowadays. We should aim the same for Indian football and keep in mind that the journey has just started!
Anyone involved in Indian football – especially fans and the media – need to be realistic and patient about the upcoming trials and virtual deals! We should realise that many players will “fail” during their trials and players who land a deal would need to work hard to reach their goals! Indian players need to adapt to the local conditions and learn to find their own way through the game played in these countries.
I’ve noticed the disappointment among many fans, when they learnt that Sunil Chhetri signed “just for the ‘B’ Team” of Sporting Clube de Portugal. And there is also some disappointment about the fact that Subrata Pal is going for a trial with a 4th Division club. Indian fans need to learn to see the overall context with an eye to the future prospects. Our players face new countries, cultural barriers, new styles of football and they need time to settle. Starting off in 3rd or 4th Division clubs is ideal for Indian players with the excellent scouting network available around Europe. The players would have enough time to settle and improve day by day and to get them into the focus of 1st or 2nd Division clubs.
Sunil has all chances to break through to the ‘A’ Team of Sporting, while Subrata could land a deal with RB Leipzig which is part of Red Bull’s global football network. The Austrian energy drink-maker owns three football clubs (Red Bull Salzburg, New York Red Bulls and RB Leipzig) and two academies in Brazil and Ghana. It’s a cleverly worked out career plan to take step by step forward.
I’m very happy to see Sunil, Subrata and Gurpreet having an endeavour in Europe, but I would like to issue a warning to anyone expecting too much from the word go. We are at the beginning of something new for Indian football and it will take some time till Indian footballers will be a familiar face in European club football.
Baichung’s legacy in European football has started to bear fruits – and we should be there to support our boys!
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