For an Indian footballer, there are two ways to cement your legacy and establish yourself as a player that fans will never forget. The first would be pulling on the Indian blue jersey, which is a superlative honor. The second would be playing for European clubs, who are considered to be the most elite in world football with South and North American clubs not far behind. Signing a contract with any such club catapults an Indian player into instant stardom and makes him part of global football headlines.
Combine these two criteria, and you get a very exclusive clique of players who have caps for the Indian National Team, and have played for foreign clubs outside Asia. This list aims to subjectively rank every player to make the aforementioned exclusive clique. Sandesh Jhingan, the latest export to sign for Croatian First Division club HNK Sibenik, is not included as he is still contracted to ATK Mohun Bagan. We can only wait and watch how it turns out.
Nowadays, every league and match is tracked meticulously which was not the case until a few years ago, hence we do not have sufficient data to rank some players. The most prestigious of those names is legendary manager Syed Abdul Rahim. Before overseeing Indian football’s golden era of the 1950s & 60s from the dugout, Rahim had played for Dutch club HSV Hoek somewhere in the late 1940s. The records of this stint have been lost to time. There are no accessible statistics for his time, meaning the stint has been forgotten and he remains unranked.
Another player whose international club numbers aren’t available is defender Roberto Fernandez. He joined Belize club San Pedro Seahawks at the turn of the century and was on loan from Goanese club Salgaocar.
The final player in this section would be Fredy Mascarenhas, a case of unrealised potential. He retired at 28 and emigrated to the Caribbean Isle of Bermuda. Spurred on by Bermudan officials and love from a fan club back home in India, he returned to the game three years later, in 2012. In a six-year career, he turned up for two clubs in Bermuda, namely Robin Hood and X Road Warriors. Conclusive and reliable stats are available for neither spell.
9. Subrata Paul
India’s main custodian for almost over a decade, Subrata Paul, became the first Indian keeper to sign for a European club. Danish club FC Vestsjaelland signed him on a short-term loan from Rangdajied United in January 2014, but Paul could not break into the first team during his time there. Despite being nicknamed "Paul the Wall," he never played a single minute for the first team. Paul's only playing time was in a few reserve league games of the Danish Superliga. Needless to say, his loan wasn’t extended and he was back in India within a few months and has stayed here ever since. He is currently on Hyderabad FC’s payroll.
8. Renedy Singh
An integral part of the Indian national team during the noughties, former India captain Renedy Singh signed for Bulgarian side CSKA Sofia in February 2015. Loaned from Kerala Blasters, the then 36-year-old Singh failed to make any official appearances for the club, which was struggling financially. Despite being regulars in European continental football, the club was relegated due to their fiscal situation.
However, the stint wasn’t entirely wasted as Renedy picked up coaching and management tips from manager Stoycho Maldenov. He put this training to use as soon as he returned from Bulgaria, joining Pune City as an assistant coach. He is currently the assistant coach at SC East Bengal.
An I-League champion before he turned 20, Romeo Fernandes became a fan favorite with a tremendous season for FC Goa in the inaugural Indian Super League in 2014. Brazilian legend and FC Goa manager Zico was impressed, and recommended young Romeo to a few Serie A clubs back in Brazil.
One of those clubs, Atletico Paranaense, followed through and signed Romeo for a loan spell in February 2015. This made him the first Indian to sign for a premier Brazilian club. What many fans, managers, pundits and even the player himself would have hoped would be a watershed moment for Indian football, turned out to be a career ruining disaster.
Romeo Fernandes could not make it into the first XI for almost three months. When he finally did make an appearance, it was an unremarkable 22-minute cameo off the bench in a local league match. Barely 20 days later, on 25th of May, it was announced that Romeo will depart Brazil and return to FC Goa. This disastrous loan spell had further repercussions when the then-coach of the Indian National Team, Stephen Constantine, publicly criticized him for heading to Brazil for “18 minutes”. Till date, Fernandes has only one solitary cap for the Indian national team and spent the 2020 season without a club, only recently signing for East Bengal.
Despite being the only person with two spells outside Asia on this list, the fact Sunil Chhetri ranks low says a lot about the quality of those spells.
Chhetri attracted enormous interest from foreign clubs like Leeds United, D.C. United and Coventry City. However, he put pen to paper for the Kansas City Wizards of the MLS in March 2010. Prior to coming off the bench for a 21-minute cameo in a July friendly against Manchester United, his only appearance was his debut game in a cup qualifier in April. Chhetri impressed with good numbers in other friendlies but could never get on the pitch for an official game. A year later, in February 2011, he was released without any further appearances.
The second stint came when Chhetri signed for the iconic Sporting Club de Portugal in July 2012. But he could turn out for their reserve team after being told that he was “not good enough for the first team”. The reserve team had players like Joao Mario, Daniel Podence and Eric Dier. Chhetri was unable to adapt to the fast tempo of the game and could not establish himself as a regular. After a paltry season with 43 minutes and zero goals across three documented caps, Chettri and Sporting mutually terminated their contracts. He returned to Indian soil in July 2013 playing for Bengaluru FC.
Probably the most unheralded stint on this list, Anupam Sarkar had a brief albeit successful run for Georgian second tier team FC Adeli Batumi. Contracted with now-defunct Indian Super League side Pune City, Sarkar signed with Adeli Batumi on a four-month loan in February 2015.
Despite making only four appearances, what ranks Sarkar higher than others so far is that he made his debut soon after signing. He was not subjected to a bench or reserve team role during his fleeting time at the club. Sarkar kept a clean sheet on his debut in March 2015, starring in an emphatic 6-0 victory over FC STU Tbilisi. He took to the pitch for a further three appearances, managing yet another clean sheet to end what was a comparatively successful short loan spell.
The earliest talisman in Indian football, Mohammad Salim was an exceptional player. Viewing his obvious talent, a relative settled in the UK persuaded Salim to try his luck there, and convinced prestigious Scottish club Celtic to give him a trial. Despite apprehensions over the Salim’s barefoot play, Celtic granted him a trial, and he astonished a crowd of over 1000 people with his nimble footwork and unique dribbling.
Salim was immediately drafted into the team for two upcoming friendlies. Aided by his twinkle toes, Celtic won both games and scored 12 goals, five of which directly involved the barefooted Salim. The media was lapping up every bit of his story and praise was showered all around but Salim was gravely homesick. Celtic pleaded with him to stay, even offering him a share from their ticket sales, but he was determined to head home to Indian shores.
The reason he ranks so high despite having no official appearances is because of the long-lasting impact he had on Celtic FC. In late 1970s, over 40 years since his brief Scottish tenure, Mohd. Salim was struggling with old age issues and his son wrote a letter to Celtic explaining their difficulties. The fact that the club still held fond memories of Salim was evident in the fact that they responded within days, sending over a bank draft for £100. His son aims to preserve the draft for as long as possible, holding it as a symbol of the place of pride Salim held at Celtic.
What makes Ishan Pandita’ s career a rarity in Indian football is that it started in Europe, in Spain’s lower leagues. That catapults him into the top half of this list. Setting foot in Spain at the age of 16, Pandita started off with a semi-professional team but in 2015 was snapped up by UD Almeria for their Juvenil (U18) team. He was also on the books of age group teams for Leganes and Gimnastic. When he signed for Leganes, he became the first South Asian to be contracted to a La Liga club, albeit with their Juvenil team.
Pandita's first professional contract was in January 2019 with Pobla Mafumet, Gimnastic’s feeder club. After making a solitary appearance, Ishan moved to third division team Lorca in Aug 2019 on a one-year contract. With six goals in over 25 games, Pandita kept Paul Pogba's older brother Mathias on the bench.
The player and the club wished to extend but the Covid-19 pandemic tightened the club’s finances, who decided to let Ishan go. He gave up on offers from other Segunda division clubs to return to India. He currently plays for FC Jamshedpur after a very fruitful season with FC Goa in the Indian Super League.
Now an Indian goalkeeping icon, Gurpreet was all 22 when he set many firsts by signing for Norwegian top tier club Stabaek in 2014. He had to wait a bit to make his official debut, which came in 2015. Despite being signed as an understudy, he established himself as the first choice for cup games. He played seven full games across two editions of the Norwegian Football Cup, including every minute in the 2016 edition where Stabaek went as far as the fourth round. Sandhu conceded only three goals and held four clean sheets across 630 minutes of cup action.
His league debut came in May 2016, which made him the first Indian to play for a top tier European club. The Eliteserien portion of his spell wasn’t as successful as the cup run, as he shipped in seven goals across three games. However, Sandhu went down in history as the first Indian to play in the Europa league when he started a qualifying match in June 2016.
He was unfortunately subbed off after 30 mins due to a broken arm and never featured in that competition again. His last appearance was an ignominious 4-2 defeat to European giants Lillestorm in June 2017. He was back in India in August 2017 with Bengaluru FC where he remains till date.
Probably the first name that would pop up in your head when talking Indian football, Bhaichung Bhutia holds a legendary position for the sport in India. And for good reason. He holds a multitude of records, including being the first Indian to sign a professional contract with a European club and follow it up with official appearances.
Manchester-based Bury FC signed Bhutia on a three-year contract on 30th September 1999, and on 3rd October Bhutia was handed his official league debut. He came off the bench in a Championship game against Cardiff City, getting booked in under a minute. He regained his composure to assist Darren Bullock for the second goal in a 3-2 win. Here is an excerpt from The Telegraph, published October 1999, talking about his 'decent' debut. Bhutia played regularly for the club, but had to wait until April 2000 to get his name on the scoresheet. Finding the back of the net against Chesterfield, he became not only the first Indian, but the first Asian citizen to score in the English football league.
Heading into the final year of his contract, Bhutia raked up over 30 league appearances (and over 45 overall) for Bury. Unfortunately, a niggling knee injury limited him to only three appearances in his last year at the club, the 2001-02 season. A contract extension was discussed but Bury FC was placed in administration which made matters very complicated. The club, and its rich history of more than 125 years, was in a financial muddle and consequently, was expelled from the EFL in 2019. Two decades after enriching their already overflowing history by signing a scrawny 22-year-old Indian kid, Bury FC is no longer a club.
Bhaichung Bhutia played his last game in August 2001, before returning to Indian football with Mohun Bagan. A total of 46 appearances with six goals and assists across three whole seasons may not sound like much, but it was a monumental feat for a footballer from India, who cemented his spot as an undisputed legend in Indian football (and at no. one on this list).
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