The referee had blown the final whistle, but the drama had not ended at the Marina Arena. An altercation between Kervens Belfort of Kerala Blasters and a few Chennaiyin FC defenders had begun. Both teams converged on one side of the ground, with Chennaiyin FC manager Marco Materazzi leading the confrontation. Yet, on the other side a defender was seen thanking the Gods for yet another clean sheet — it was no easy task keeping a star-studded Chennai team at bay — while maintaining a safe distance from the trouble brewing at the other end that saw even the Chennaiyin FC team owner, Abhishek Bachchan, joining in.
It is perhaps this ability — to keep a calm head in difficult circumstances — that has made Sandesh Jhingan the mainstay of the Indian national team and the Kerala Blasters defence. They say passion, panache and perseverance are the characteristics that define a good footballer, and the 23-year-old defender has all that and more.
“I am who I was three years ago,” Jhingan said when asked about his celebrity status after playing in the Indian Super League. This best defines the player who takes his National coach Stephen Constantine’s directives on maintaining discipline on and off the field as his life’s mantra.
The versatile defender, who can play in any position in the back-line, has been one of the rising stars of Indian football ever since the advent of the ISL in 2014. Sportstar recently caught up with India’s next generation star.
Question: After a shaky start to its 2016 League campaign, Kerala Blasters has managed a string of good results…
Answer: I don’t think we had a shaky start to the season. Yes, we did not get the results we wanted, but we were gaining momentum and playing a good brand of football. We will take it one game at a time and are confident of going ahead.
How has it been playing with Aaron Hughes under the guidance of Steve Coppell? How has it improved your game?
I’ve been very lucky since I turned pro. I have worked under many good coaches and played along with good players. Aaron Hughes is a top player. He had just played in the EURO and it’s great for me to learn from him and Steve (Coppell). I hope to be a better player for Blasters and the national side.
You have played as a right-back before. Are you okay with occupying that position to accommodate Aaron Hughes and Cedric Hengbart in the team?
I just want to help the team. I am comfortable playing as a full-back. I have played as a left-back in the I-League for Sporting (Goa) and my aim is to help the team in whatever way possible. I have tremendous support from the coaching staff as well. They have constantly been helping me improve.
Chandigarh is not a football hub like Goa or Kolkata, yet Punjab has a history of producing good footballers. Tell us how you started playing football. Was it always your choice of sport?
It was my elder brother Saurabh who introduced me to football. One day he brought a tennis ball home and we started kicking it around in the veranda of our house. It was nothing serious. We then played in the streets and I enjoyed it a lot. I played for the school — to miss my classes mostly — and then the St. Stephen’s Football Academy came along. They wanted me to play for them. I played with them in the Manchester (United Premier) Cup and we reached the South East Asian finals.
That was the time I got serious about football. I got to know about the junior national team and wanted to make it to the squad. I played for the India Under-16 team and then was fast-tracked into the Under-19 team. But then, I suffered a very serious knee injury. I recovered from it, trained for two weeks and then broke my ankle. I was out for one year, and that was when I almost quit football. I was just 17 and these two injuries shook me. But my brothers and parents helped me in my recovery, and I continued playing. Thereafter, I never looked back. I am glad that I suffered those injuries because they made me who I am today.
Tell us about your early exposure to football. Did local clubs such as JCT play any role?
Initially, like most others, I started watching football on TV. It was my brother who took interest and showed me the Premier League. Even today, we talk a lot on football. I started enjoying the games but once I started playing for the junior teams, I started following our national team under coach Bob Houghton. The national team’s victories in events such as the Nehru Cup really inspired me and I wanted to be in the squad some day.
Were you interested in any other sport?
I have played different games. I was good in hockey and athletics, but once I got into football, I concentrated more on it.
You are now part of a new Indian team that is looking to make it big at the international level. Tell us what it means to be part of this team and what coach Stephen Constantine has brought to Indian football?
I’m honoured to be told that I’m part of the future of Indian football. I am excited to be part of this project. Stephen (Constantine) is a great motivator. His speeches prior the games give you goosebumps and they certainly help bring out the best in you. He has brought in discipline — on and off the field. It’s been a great experience playing for him so far. We did have some bad results early on, especially the game against Guam. But that is part of football, and we have come back strongly. You can see that we have improved a lot and now we are winning by big margins. I think we are in the right path but it is important to sustain the momentum and keep believing in ourselves.
What does the team need to do to improve its ranking? Do you think we should play more friendly matches with higher-ranked teams because we play mostly against South Asian opposition, who are ranked lower than we are?
Firstly, I’m not a big fan of rankings. I’m always looking to play in big tournaments. Of course, playing friendlies is a part of the process, especially against tough opponents. A lot of things have been said about the Indian football calendar, and how it hinders the team’s progress. So, we should look at how we can improve the scheduling of the national football games. We need to play tough opponents and learn from them. Our goal should be to feature more in the Asian tournaments. The World Cup is the dream destination, but we need to be realistic with our goals as well. We need to first show our dominance in Asia and then use that momentum to achieve greater things.
One of the biggest criticisms of ISL has been its inability to unearth talent. You are clearly a product of the ISL, earning a place in the Indian team following your performance for Kerala Blasters in Season One. Do you think the criticism is unfair?
All the leagues are here essentially to improve the football in the country. We can’t say if it was the ISL or the I-League that spotted a talent, considering most of us play in both leagues. If we go by numbers, India was ranked 170 when the ISL started and now it is 131. So, we have improved. If you look at the back-line there is me, Pritam (Kotal) and Narayan (Das) who are all 23-24 (years old). We were 20 when the ISL started, so it was a good platform for us to shine. Even though Eugeneson (Lyngdoh) was in the limelight playing for Bengaluru FC, you can’t say his stint with FC Pune City hasn’t helped him improve. Look at Jeje, he had a slump prior to the ISL, and then Chennaiyin helped him improve. Mandar (Rao Desai) is another example.
There is a lot of hype around AIFF’s proposed 3-tier league. What do you make of it and what will it do to a professional football player in India?
I will not comment much on this because I haven’t really read much. I’m sure there are people who are wiser than me who will take the decision. Ultimately, it should benefit Indian football and footballers.
But will a longer league help?
Of course, yes! It definitely will help the players. The ISL is good but it is physically demanding. I played the ISL, national team matches and the I-League last year and finally had to miss the SAFF Cup because I picked up an ankle injury. The season is really hard on us players, so having a longer league will give us more time to recover and play better.
What about employment? Isn’t it better to stay at one club through the year than searching for clubs midway through the season?
I’ve been lucky that way and I have not had a lot of difficulty finding clubs. But yes, finding a club can be an issue for footballers, there is no denying that. It is a dicey issue because you have two clubs talking over a player, but that is football.
How does it feel to be recognised as a star? How has the ISL changed Sandesh Jhingan?
I am who I was three years ago (before the ISL started). I have not let the popularity affect me and I’m a firm believer that nothing should change who you are. So, I don’t let these things affect me.
What about commercial deals? Have you signed any?
I have an ongoing deal with Puma. That’s it. There is nothing else.
Are you happy with the exposure you are getting here in India? Will you be open to moving abroad like Gurpreet Singh Sandhu?
Let’s not forget Aditi Chauhan as well, who had exceptional success in England. And yes, why not? Most of us Indian footballers harbour this hope of one day playing in a big league in Europe. I know it isn’t easy, but it isn’t entirely unachievable either. I am working towards it.
Have clubs approached you?
After the first ISL, we had a couple of interesting offers for trials. But it didn’t work out mostly due to their transfer window shutting and not really coinciding with ours. Last year, there was nothing concrete, so this year I don’t know. I will wait for the ISL to get over and then discuss my future with the agent.
India is hosting the Under-17 World Cup in October 2017. How do you think it will impact Indian football?
I wish I were under-17 (laughs). It is a massive opportunity for the lads and they have a very good coach in Nicolai (Adam). They will get to play against really good teams in such a big tournament. The way forward for Indian football, or for any other country, is to have a strong base of young talent and the World Cup is an ideal platform to develop a pool of players. We have done a remarkable job of shaping these guys, getting them to play a lot of tournaments and developing them. But we have to ensure they remain at the same level even after the World Cup. The tournament should be a catalyst for developing more footballers.
With the event scheduled for the month of October, what do you think will happen to the ISL?
(Laughs) That you will have to ask Ms. Ambani and Mr. Praful Patel.