The evolution of Gurpreet Singh Sandhu into a champion
The fans were booing him. Insults, hurled like missiles, were being showered generously on his towering frame; the young goalie, for all his stature, was looking very fragile as he walked towards the team bus standing outside Yubabharati Kridangan.
Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, recently nominated as East Bengal's No.1 goalkeeper, had made a terrible mistake in the hallowed stadium to hand United SC a narrow victory against his club and the vociferous supporters of the Red-and-Gold brigade had found their public enemy No.1.
Lesser men would have wilted away at the scrutiny that East Bengal, one of India's most demanding clubs but Sandhu was made of sterner stuff. Sandhu always had the talent but it was the mental game that he needed to up and so he did, becoming the first Indian goalkeeper to play in a top league in Europe and in the Europa League's first qualifying round.
To foreign shores
Sandhu's impressive frame and developing shot-stopping abilities made him a target for foreign clubs and he finally made the cut at Stabaek in Norway.
However, the difference between his stint in Europe and those of his predecessors, including stalwarts like Sunil Chhetri and Bhaichung Bhutia and fellow India goalkeeper Subrata Pal, was the fact that he played a much more involved role in competitive matches for the club before his departure from Norway.
A giant for the nation
While Sandhu returned home and fulfilled his potential as a goalkeeper at Bengaluru FC, it is his performances for the Blue Tigers that have made him stand out as a sports personality. As the Indians put in a gallant display in Doha to snatch a famous 0-0 draw against Asian Champions Qatar in a World Cup/Asia Cup qualifier, it was the captain for the day, the goalkeeper, who stole much of the limelight thanks to his heroic displays between the three sticks.
Not only did the 'keeper from Punjab make a string of crucial saves to keep the relentless Qataris at bay, he commanded the penalty box and directed his defenders like a true leader. Some had found him at fault for Oman's second goal in the heart-breaking loss in the first match of the qualifiers because he had hesitated to come out, but this time there was no circumspection, no fear as the Sandhu proved he has mastered the mental side of the game as well.
Often, the criticism levelled at him has been a tad unfair, even against Oman, the shot-stopper kept Igor Stimac's boys in the hunt because of some wonderful saves, but he has never taken the critiques negatively, in fact, they seem to have propelled him forward as a footballer, helped him evolve into the pillar that he is right now, the last man standing for the Indian national football team.