When you speak to Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, he comes across as an affable guy who absolutely loves what he is doing but at the same time, is aware of his responsibilities as someone who people look up to. That is the reason why, when he considered auctioning his sketches to support a cause, he chose something that is closest to his heart, football. Speaking to The Bridge about how he genuinely wants to level the playing field for women footballers in India, the passion and empathy with which he articulated his words was a breath of fresh air.
“You know, for our generation and the generation after us, it’s all about unlearning the vices that society has taught us while we were growing up and broadening our world-view that can help us become better versions of ourselves,” he says when asked about the need for a change in mentality towards women’s football and gender equality in general. So what was the thought process behind trying to generate funds for the betterment of women’s football in India? “I was with my fiancée in Sydney and we were just going through some of my sketches when she suggested that we should do something with them. We were playing around with ideas when she said that maybe we could do something for women’s football. I had always wanted to take up an initiative that could be an ally for women’s empowerment in the country and this seemed like the perfect vehicle for that.”
Indeed, with the first of his sketches generating a highest bid of ₹7000, and with each such amount set to be more than doubled before it reaches its destination, such an initiative for women’s football has long been overdue, especially with a bonafide footballing hero as its face.
He isn’t hesitant either to acknowledge that it was his fiancée Devenish Singh who pushed him towards taking this up seriously. “She is a huge source of inspiration for me. Sometimes you meet someone and with time you learn to view things from a different perspective, with a little more patience and understanding, that is exactly what she has brought in my life.” The couple who are set to tie the knot soon have grand plans in terms of taking this cause further. “I started doing this when I was a kid and it later became a pastime during my travels, but now there is an added source of contentment since I know that this is being used for something good. We’ll see where it takes us,” he says.
— Gurpreet Singh Sandhu (@GurpreetGK) September 20, 2020
The 2019 Arjuna awardee takes all the appreciation that he is getting with a pinch of salt though. “I know mine aren’t the most creative or unique of sketches, there are so many artists out there who are more talented at this, I’m just happy that I can use whatever little influence I have on football fans in the country to work towards women’s empowerment in a domain which I am familiar with,” he replies when we compliment on his sketches of popular cartoon characters like Dexter and Scooby-Doo, which have grabbed a lot of eyeballs recently on social media. But why women’s football, we ask him. “Being a footballer myself, I understand the hardships that every young kid in India who wants to be a professional footballer has to go through to reach a certain level. What saddens me is that in our country, many girls still do not get the freedom to pursue the sport out of their own volition. Added to that, a lack of infrastructure and national level prominence has made their path even more difficult. It is high time we, as men, acknowledge the difficulties that they face and ensure that we do everything possible to give them a platform to show their talent because some of the young girls that are coming through are just brilliant. We have to work together towards equality in sports.”
Gurpreet has been a big advocate of Indian players going abroad for more exposure, having himself played in Norway for Stabaek FC. With Bala Devi’s recent foray into the Scottish League with Glasgow Rangers, we asked him whether this could lead to more such opportunities for Indian girls to play abroad. “Bala Devi is such a rockstar you know. I think what she has achieved should be a matter of great pride for the entire country and should show young players how to have a proper roadmap for your career and work towards getting there,” he said with obvious pride.
With the new season of the Indian Super League (ISL) less than a couple of months away, the Bengaluru FC shot-stopper can’t wait to re-start doing what he does best and has added cycling to his workout routine to keep himself in shape. “At this point I’m just waiting for the team to assemble for our pre-season and get on with building our fitness and sharpness before the tournament begins,” says Gurpreet, the determination in his voice peeking through.
Bestowed with the AIFF player of the year award recently, something that his club and national team captain and personal role model Sunil Chhetri has won six times, all seems to be going well for the Chandigarh boy on a professional front. Personally though, Devenish and him have just about started doing something that they truly believe could change the fortunes of young female footballers in our country and it is something that he wishes to follow through with. “Both of us want to make a difference and in this case, if my voice and position as a professional athlete can help in making women feel empowered, then that would be entirely my honour. We have to, absolutely have to make it a more equal world for our next generations, otherwise we would be failing them. And if this initiative could inspire other men from the sports industry to come out and do their bit in ensuring equality, I’ll be a happy man,” he signs off.