Sandesh Jhingan joined Croatian top division side HNK Sibenik and made it to a list of elite Indian footballers who have signed a professional contract with a top-tier European club. The 28-year-old, named India’s footballer of the year, says, “I’m just a kid from Chandigarh who is chasing his dreams and trying to fulfil his potential.”

Jhingan first heard of the interest from the Croatian club in June this year when he was in Qatar with the Indian national team. He immediately had a sit-down with national coach Igor Stimac, who was a central defender in Croatia’s 1998 FIFA World Cup campaign. The two discussed the pros and cons of a move to Croatia, and Stimac felt it would help Sandesh “enhance his game further, both on and off the field.”

READ: Jhingan: I'm just a kid from Chandigarh who is chasing his dreams

Meanwhile, the think-tank in the Adriatic coastal city of Sibenik, led by the Colombian CEO Eduardo Zapata, was excited by the prospect of acquiring the imposing defender. The club, which recently gained promotion to the top division, had received over 10,000 profiles and zeroed down on the Indian because he met their demand for a top stopper-back and impressed them with his leadership skills.

“We are thrilled and excited to have Sandesh here. We believe he is a great player and will be a leader for the young players. I like to form my teams around young players. But a key aspect in this regard is to have good leaders on and off the pitch. For me, Sandesh and the 2-3 senior players we have, will be the good role models we need. He is a disciplined guy, who is focused, and this is the kind of person we wanted in the club. It’s not only the young players in the first squad who will look up to him, the academy players also look up to the first team. Our idea beyond football is that he will help us as a person, as a leader and as a positive role model,” said Zapata.

For Sandesh, the transfer is about pursuing the European dream and throwing himself out of his comfort zone. He spent 13 months on the sidelines after an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury and then joined ATK Mohun Bagan from Kerala Blasters on a five-year deal. However, when the chance to play in Europe presented itself, he knew he had to take the leap of faith. “I’ve always made decisions that put me outside of my comfort zone. I feel the moment you feel comfortable, you need to take a step up and keep making yourself uncomfortable. I wanted to go somewhere where I can see myself improve and excel more,” he said.

The burly defender added that the Croatian national team’s phenomenal growth, which saw it finish runner-up at the 2018 FIFA World Cup, was also a driving factor behind his move to Sibenik. “The growth of the national team has been immense, and the players play in the top leagues in Europe, and that's why I chose this league. I felt I would be tested to my limits, and that's how you improve.


Excited with the signing: “We are thrilled and excited to have Sandesh here. We believe he is a great player and will be a leader for the young players,” says the club CEO Eduardo Zapata.


“It will be challenging, but I trust myself and my work ethic. If I can put in the work like I always have done and stay disciplined then I can see if I can get into the starting XI. If not, then I need to put more effort. It’s about me getting better. Whether I play or not is on me — if I play, then it’s ‘well done Sandesh’, if I don’t, then it’s ‘work hard Sandesh’.”

Sandesh’s transfer was finalised on the same day when his former side ATK Mohun Bagan began its AFC Cup campaign with a 2-0 win over Bengaluru FC.

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“It was a hard decision to take because we dreamt of winning the AFC together, but that’s how it is in football. Every Asian (footballer) has a desire to move to Europe. The opportunity came just now and I wish it came earlier. It came just when the AFC Cup was starting. It was tough but I had to make the decision. I felt it was the right age for me to take up a new challenge in my career. I am very thankful to everyone at ATK Mohun Bagan for supporting me. After my injury, many changed their opinions about me and that was surprising, but ATK Mohun Bagan showed love and respect and faith in me and helped me have a great season. I enjoyed every moment at ATK Mohun Bagan,” he said.

Sandesh is now chasing a dream he had as a 10-year-old. “I had this thing in my mind that the sky is the limit when it comes to my potential to be a good human or wherever I invest my time in. That’s how my family brought me up as a child. I’m just running after that dream. I’m just a kid from Chandigarh who dreamt big, had the faith and belief that if I worked hard, was disciplined and made sacrifices then I could be anywhere. This step will help me in that path of becoming a better human and a footballer. I am chasing that potential,” he said.

Sandesh’s move to Croatia will inspire a generation of youngsters in India, all keen to emulate him and play for a top-division side in Europe.