Interview with Gurpreet Singh: 'Bengaluru FC's high coaching standards match those in Europe'
First things first. How tall is Gurpreet Singh? The Bengaluru FC goalkeeper towers over everyone on the pitch and even skipper Sunil Chhetri hates it when he stands behind him when the teams line up.
Wikipedia lists him at 6'6". Is he? "I told Wikipedia I'm 6'6" because I am 6'6"," he says with a smile. "Commentators say I'm 6'4"," waving a hand dismissively.
It is the perfect height for a goalkeeper, of course. The extra reach and command in aerial duels sets him apart from many goalkeepers in the ISL but he almost never thought about football as a career.
"I didn't start with football. I started with cricket, to be honest. My father is a big cricket fan and I live in Mohali - quite close to the PCA Stadium.
"I tried to get into the academy there but the first 3-4 days didn't excite me much so I decided to try my hand at another sport. I also tried volleyball in school but that didn't excite me either."
"My school luckily has a football academy - St. Stephen's Academy - I joined them in 2000 when the coaches approached me and asked me if I wanted to play football. Before that I didn't have any history of playing football or even watching football."
So was becoming a goalkeeper always part of the plan?
"It was the plan from Day 1 actually. After learning the basics, the coaches saw that I was taller than the others. So they put me in goal."
The Norwegian sojourn
The rest is history, as they say. Gurpreet then signed up with East Bengal as a teenager and spent five years there before Norwegian club Stabæk Football approached him and signed him up.
It's also where he became the first Indian player to appear in a Europa League match when he played in a qualifier in June 2016.
The fondest moment of his career so far also comes from his time in Norway: "Walking out to on to the pitch to become the first Indian to play a top division match in Europe." It's historic. Others before him such as Bhaichung Bhutia and Chhetri did not play in the top division.
Opportunities were hard to come by at Stabæk, though. He was always second choice and rarely had the chance to play and impress his manager. Does he regret the fewer opportunities afforded to him?
"If you ask me, the day I went to Norway; I didn't even know I was going to sign with Stabæk. So what I got was more than enough. No one expected me to sign with them - even I didn't expect to go so far during my stint in Norway.
"I'm not really satisfied with how much I could contribute. I wish I could have done more - I know I could have done more. But circumstances did not allow that and that's how football works sometimes."
An injury had cut short his European debut and Gurpreet was sidelined yet again. So when an opportunity to return to India to play regular football came up, he didn't have to think twice.
The move back to India
Bengaluru FC had lost most of their squad to the Indian Super League draft. Having retained only Chhetri and Udanta Singh, the rest of the squad was disbanded. Goalkeeper Amrinder Singh was re-signed by Mumbai City and suddenly the Blues lacked a top class goalkeeper despite rebuilding the rest of the squad.
It wasn't easy. Gurpreet's first choice was, understandably, to stay in Europe with interest coming from Portugal.
"My first option was to stay in Europe. The moment I chose to leave Stabæk, I tried to find options in Europe. Portuguese club Boa Vista was one of our options.
"Due to the small window that we had - because the Norwegian transfer window stays open only for a month - we had to convince them to sign me but they already had three goalkeepers.
"So what we decided was to sign for them and then come on loan to India for this season and then return to Portugal. The plan was to return after the ISL but the deal fell through because it was taking too much time for the paperwork to come through.
"The window was very small and we had to do everything very fast. If I had to go to Portugal and then come to India, I'd have to transfer from Norway to Portugal and then Portugal to India; which would have taken a number of days whereas we had only about three to four days.
"It was a last minute call to return to India and then look for another opportunity in Europe again later on."
Gurpreet's transfer to Bengaluru FC is unique. It's the first time an Indian club signed an Indian player from a European club by paying a transfer fee. The Blues had kept it under wraps and eventually signed him for an undisclosed fee, using the ISL rules to their advantage and bringing him into the squad when Ralte was injured.
But why did he pick no.45? It has nothing to do with superstition.
"In the AFC Cup that was the only number that was available for registration. As you know, I was a late signing. Getting the player registration done was the biggest priority rather than choosing my number."
'Indian clubs need their own training pitches'
Returning to India may be a step back for most players - especially as far as coaching standards are concerned. But Gurpreet is more than happy with the standards in the Bengaluru camp - comparable to European standards.
"The coaching standards here are very high. We have a very good coach in Albert Roca and the way we play football is different from the others, as everyone can see.
"But if you must compare, then the training facilities in Europe are far better." However, he does have a few pointers for clubs to catch up with their European counterparts.
"Clubs must get their own training pitch - one of good quality. One or two ISL teams do have their own pitch, like ATK - they have good pitches around Salt Lake Stadium thanks to the U--17 World Cup."
"Because you train more than you play, you need good pitches to train on so you can build your game. We want to win games by playing good football and that is what we try to do."
Good football is the foundation on which Roca had tried to build this team and it seems to be working now. So what does Roca expect from a goalkeeper in his team?
"As a goalkeeper it's safety first. Once we have the ball, he wants us to start playing out from the back and build attacks from the back. I have to take the initiative sometimes and start attacks or change things around when we are under pressure. So I need to keep a cool head."
However, one thing that has stood out with Gurpreet is his distribution. Time and again he spots Chhetri making a run and always seems to find him with a quick punt up field.
"That's something I do because I feel that is the right choice so we can surprise the opposition. I do it even with the national team too. Chhetri bhai and I have that understanding - it's not to do with tactics or coaching - it's something we have been working on. If it's possible, we do it and we have been successful."
Gurpreet's notable successes have come in the last few years but there was one person who saw the potential in him very early on - Joe Morrison. Indian football fans will remember him from late Champions League nights when he ensured their eyes were glued to the TV screen even at half-time.
"Joe Morrison is one of the people responsible for my stint in Norway. He's my manager and I've known him since 2011.
"My relationship with him is not that of a player and manager - he's more like family to me. He's the person I go to - whether I'm in a good or bad situation."
'Bengaluru fans have set the standard'
Gurpreet has been in good and bad situations at Bengaluru FC too - be it crucial saves to get all three points or a red card that cost them the game in Goa. However, the Bengaluru fans have showered him with love no matter what happens over the 90 minutes.
"Anything I say about the Bengaluru fans will not be enough. They have been top notch from Day 1 even when I was not a player at Bengaluru. When I used to visit the city as part of the national team I felt like I was at home."
"These fans have set standards in Indian football. I don't think anyone had huge banners, chants, and songs about players - the Bengaluru fans have done that. There are lots more things to do with them in the future and I hope they keep supporting us and keep coming to the Fortress."
But the fans missed out on what he claims is the most memorable save of his career so far. "That penalty save in North Korea." Bengaluru had a 3-0 lead over April 25 from the first leg at home and had an interesting trip to North Korea where they managed to keep a clean sheet thanks to that penalty save.
As a result, Bengaluru became the first team to stop April 25 SC from scoring a goal in the AFC Cup and also the first Indian team to keep a clean sheet in the quarter-finals.
Gurpreet's biggest idol among the current lot of players is none other than Juventus goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon. The veteran had been a finalist in the Ballon d'Or, eventually finishing fourth. So which goalkeeper does he think can win the award in the future?
"I had hoped Gigi Buffon could have won the Ballon d'Or. The way David De Gea is playing, I think he stands the best chance of winning it in the future."
Why Red Bull?
Gurpreet is a Red Bull athlete too. What is that association with them all about?
"Associating with Red Bull was important for me. As an athlete, you want things around you that push you and try to make you better - people who want the best for you. Red Bull is one of them and I'm very glad to be partners with them."
Outside the pitch, Gurpreet has his hobbies. And one hobby that endeared him to fans is his love for sketching cartoons.
"It's something that I'd been doing since my school days. I'd stopped in between when I chose to focus on football but I realised that whenever you get time you need to do what you love."
"Sketching is one thing that helps me concentrate and focus. It's the kind of thing that needs focus and stable hands so it's a good getaway for me."
Who is his all-time favourite cartoon character? "Homer Simpson!"
But he has no plans of looking up to the unfit, middle-aged American dad whose biggest trait is arguably his laziness. Being a Red Bull athlete, Gurpreet even has a New Year's resolution.
"There are no excuses to be fit. Fitness is possible anytime anywhere!"