Ever since news broke out that Sandesh Jhingan would end his six-year association with Indian Super League (ISL) franchise Kerala Blasters FC, the rumour mills have been going strong, linking him to one football club after the other.
Quite unsurprisingly, one of the hottest properties in the transfer market right now, Jhingan has been courted by several Indian clubs already. From giants ATK-Mohun Bagan to newbies Odisha FC, a number of ISL clubs have approached the 26-year-old centre back with a serious intent to sign him up for the next season.
However, the player’s camp is in no hurry to make a decision, they have maintained that Jhingan is looking for a change of scenery and wants to ply his trade abroad — like a few other national team stars have done in the past. In fact, reportedly, he had attracted interest from Scottish Premiership side Motherwell FC, German third division club Hallerscher FC and Qatar Stars League side Al-Gharafa SC. But should he join any of these clubs? Or should he stay put in the ISL, at least for one more season? The Bridge tries to find an answer.
Speculation at best, and neither has Motherwell FC reached out as the rumour mills have suggested. https://t.co/T4boyIwerN
— Sagnik Kundu (@whynotkundu) May 27, 2020
First things first, it is understood that the above-mentioned three links are rumours at best. Jhingan’s agent does have close ties with Motherwell, having helped another player, Dheeraj Singh Moirangthem — star of India’s only FIFA World Cup campaign — land a brief trial there. But then again, we can confirm that the Scottish club has not yet expressed any interest in Jhingan contrary to what has been reported. The same goes for Hallerscher FC and Al-Gharafa, with the latter club’s owner himself dismissing the rumour.
Now, the question is, even if there is a legitimate offer from a foreign club, should Jhingan take it up? Signing for a professional club is a very tempting opportunity for any Indian footballer, only few have that feather in their hat. It would mean immense exposure for the player, he will train with better players, under better coaches and, off the pitch, it would increase his brand value.
When it comes to Jhingan, though, the equation begs to differ. If the Chandigarh Football Academy (CFA) product does sign for a foreign club of some repute, will it be because of his quality or because the said club wants to expand its fan base to a new country with a population of 1.3 billion? Along with the perks of playing at a top-tier foreign club — a path a select few Indians had trodden before and fared miserably — come the cons.
The tale of Indians in foreign top-flights
(We will ignore Md Salim as well as Bhaichung Bhutia’s experiences of playing aborad, because let’s face it, Indian football has changed a lot since those days.)
Back in 2010, when Sunil Chhetri signed for American Major League Soccer (MLS) side Kansas City Wizards, there was a lot of fanfare. All of 25, Chhetri was set to hit the best years of his professional career and the move to the United States was seen as a landmark moment. At the press conference where he was unveiled as a Kansas player for the first time, the American team’s representatives had spoken highly of him.
And yet, Chhetri would make just one official appearance for the team, a Lamer Hunt Open Cup qualifier against Colorado Rapids. Midway through the match, he was substituted after being cautioned once for a poor challenge. His most glorifying moment was a 21-minute appearance for the reserves in a friendly against English giants Manchester United.
Don’t get us wrong, Chhetri joining Kansas was the best thing that happened to Indian football in a long, long time. But within 3-4 months of joining, he was already looking for a way out. “There are times when I think it’s just not happening, and I should move on and think of different alternatives,” Chhetri was quoted as saying by mlssoccer.com.
Chhetri’s sojourn with Portuguese club Sporting Lisbon also turned out to be disappointing. “You are not good enough for the first team, get lost to the B team,” was what the talismanic Indian football captain had to listen to from Sporting Lisbon head coach when he joined them in 2012. “I gave it a shot for nine months, played five games, scoring zero goal. I was to be there for three years but I told the coach I want to go back to India, just release me,” the player himself would say, years later, in an interview with indiansuperleague.com.
After Chhetri, Subrata Pal, popularly known as the Indian Spiderman for his heroics between the sticks, also got a taste of what it means for signing for a foreign club. In
2014, Pal signed for FC Vestsjælland of the Danish Superliga, the second player after Bhaichung Bhutia to join a top-tier European side. Again, he did not make any appearance for the first team and only appeared for the reserve squad.
Then came the longest stint enjoyed by an Indian at a top-tier foreign club. In 2014, Goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu signed on the dotted lines of Norwegian club Stabæk Fotball. Tied down for three years, Gurpreet was rated highly by his American manager Bob Bradley. However, it was always apparent that he would not be the first choice keeper. He did become the first Indian to actually play for a European first division unit, the first Indian to start a top division European league game and also, the first Indian to make an appearance in a UEFA competition.
The exposure he got was second to none in India. But when asked about his reason for coming back to India, Gurpreet told PTI that there was no point in staying put with Stabaek because he was not getting match-time. “Therefore, I decided to look for alternatives. My first preference was to stay in Europe, but according to circumstances, it wasn’t possible,” he was quoted saying.
One thing is evident from these stints, an Indian footballer won’t get a lot of time on the pitch at a top foreign club. He will get to train with the players, play friendlies and even feature in Cup ties but if you are not playing regularly in the main league, what does that exposure tally for?
For a youngster it might make sense but for Jhingan — who is already well established in Indian football — having come off a season-long injury lay off, it is imperative that he gets meaningful gametime. If he doesn’t, it could virtually spell the end of his career. Hypothetically, if he stays in India for one more season — wherein he successfully completes his comeback from injury, establishes himself in the AFC Champions League or AFC Cup, and wins the elusive ISL trophy — then, imagine his stock value and importance at a foreign club.
Also read: ISL 2020-21: What next for Sandesh Jhingan?