There is nothing distinctive about Noorpur, a small village in the Ludhiana District of Punjab. With agriculture being its main industry like it is in most villages of India, Noorpur is a tranquil place to be at sunset. But that was not the case on August 5. That day, roughly 2100 kilometres away in Bhubaneshwar, one of Noorpur’s own, Gurkirat Singh, was mesmerising a roaring Kalinga Stadium in the SAFF U20 Championships final. Parts of the village were alive in a celebratory mood, and congratulations were in order for the Singh family.
Gurkirat scored four goals in India’s 5-2 win against Bangladesh in the final. With eight goals in the tournament, he was the top scorer and grabbed the MVP (Most Valuable Player) award. At the tender age of 19, Gurkirat would be forgiven if nervousness had crept in, given the exigent occasion, but he says he just played his game and saw the goal as his target.
“ Bas ye dimaag me tha ki goal karna hein (There was just one thing in my mind- that I have to score a goal). I have played in the Indian Super League, and when you play with senior players, you imbibe a lot and constantly learn. You also learn to deal with pressure daily. In the final against Bangladesh, I constantly kept telling my teammates that we have to score anyhow. The stadium was ours. The crowd support was excellent. And the aim was to win,” he tells Sportstar.
Gurkirat is a player who has been honing his skills from the grassroots level. Joining the Chandigarh Football Academy at 12, his flair was quickly noticed, and he was selected for the U16 National side under the tutelage of former India international Bibiano Fernandes, who converted him from a full back to a forward.
Under Fernandes, Gurkirat learned to not only take care of himself on the field, but also off it. Fernandes helped him to sharpen his tactical and technical aptitude on the pitch while devoting equal care to factors like his diet and mental strength. From there, it has been an upward curve for Gurkirat, who also won the SAFF U18 Championship in 2019, beating Bangladesh 2-1 in the summit clash. With two goals, he was India’s top scorer in the tournament.
After so many accolades at just 19, the hunger to perform has increased for Gurkirat. He says his confidence is at a high right now but emphasises that there is no place for complacency. For him, his priority has been set in stone right from the start- performing for India.
“I can’t tell you how beautiful the journey has been. Wearing the Indian jersey only is a matter of pride and honour for me,” he says. “On top of that, to play well for the country is something that makes me happy. Now I just want to continue doing that and keep working hard and replicate this level of performance in the senior national team.”
Home is where the heart is
Gurkirat does not have anyone with a sporting background in his family. His love for the game started after watching his brothers play, and once he started playing, he knew he had found his calling and that’s all he wanted to do since.
“I started playing the game with my friends in our village. Once I started playing, the craze for the game built up gradually,” he says.
So, when he won the SAFF U-20 title, his village was elated. The boy, who was an almost constant presence in the fields of Noorpur, had made the village proud once again.
“I have been humbled by the love and adoration I have received back home. My parents told me that many people came to our house to congratulate them personally. No one has made it to professional football from my village in that sense. So representing my village on an international level is something that makes me proud and I am happy to have been able to achieve that,” Gurkirat says with a sheepish smile.
What lies ahead?
Gurkirat says the SAFF U-20 achievement will stay, but it is time to look forward. He knows that he will be watched with keen eyes and will be under constant scrutiny but according to him, it is all about channelising the pressure into something positive that will help him grow and perform.
“I am taking it one step at a time. Right now, the priority is to work hard, give my best and perform well for the club [Mumbai City FC]. After that, if I get called up to the national side, the focus will be on performing for the country. So, this pressure helps me and keeps me on my toes.”
Gurkirat is currently in the Mumbai City’s Durand Cup squad. For someone who primarily plays a No.9, he has direct competition from talisman and new signing Greg Stewart, who starred in Jamshedpur FC’s ISL shield win last season. However, Gurkirat sees this as an opportunity to learn. He seeks out knowledge from not only the coaches but also his teammates.
“I know I have to compete with some very big names but I constantly communicate with my teammates. I have spoken to him [Greg] also because his experience is invaluable.”
Also, working with a coach like Des Buckingham bodes well for Gurkirat. “He is someone who started his coaching career with youth teams, so he connects well with young players like me. He knows how to handle and motivate young players. He has told me to keep my head down and focus. Gametime will eventually arrive,” feels Gurkirat.
From here, the graph can only go up for Gurkirat if he keeps his head in the game. He has his 2023 AFC U-20 Asian Cup qualifiers next month, but that hangs in the balance with FIFA’s suspension of the All India Football Federation (AIFF).
“I really hope all of this gets resolved soon. What more can I say really? Obviously, I would be disappointed if India cannot host the U-17 Women’s World Cup, and we have our AFC qualifiers too next month. Let’s see what happens. Important people are dealing with the matter. All I hope for is a positive outcome,” says the youngster.