Just a few months shy of the new season, India’s most trusted defender Sandesh Jhinghan is without a club to his name after Kerala Blasters FC terminated his contract. With many suitors ready to offer him a job, this might be a rebirth for the 26-year old, who is yet to pass his prime.
This story is not about your normal Indian footballer, but a once-in-a-generation player who gradually rose through the ranks to establish himself as one of the poster boys of Indian football. The ACL injury might have kept him on the sidelines for the entirety of last season, but that’s hardly going to dent the legacy which the defender has built over the last six years in the ISL. That he should not be worried even though he is without a club just months away from the new season, is a testament to the stature he holds in Indian football.
Jhingan’s career graph has shown a uniform rise since he donned the yellow jersey back in the inaugural season of the ISL, but we are still unaware whether the defender will buck the trend once he returns to the football field post ACL injury. One thing we are aware of though is the fact his career has not hit a roadblock with the player still in his prime, even though he was overlooked by Kerala Blasters FC, a club where he’s grown in stature, year by year. Not only has it opened his avenues for a brighter future, but also sprung the transfer window back to life, with the clubs in a race to land him.
Yes, it was neither anticipated nor remotely logical that Kerala Blasters FC would part ways with their favourite son this summer, at a time when Sandesh was gearing up to storm the field once again. But, the club has done their bit to show respect to the outgoing star by retiring his jersey number. If we investigate further, we might look at the case from different two angles - is it Kerala Blasters FC’s loss or Sandesh Jhingan’s gain? Even if for a second, the ISL outfits were of the thought that the centre-back would lose his sting post-injury, the management must have been high on dope.
The Tuskers have been trying long enough to crack the code, but a couple of runners-up finishes was all they managed in the past six seasons. That the management shuffled with nine different managers during the same time period shows their struggle to brew the perfect blend for a success story. Money was never the problem, it has never been, with them pulling some of the most expensive deals in Indian football. But signings don’t win you football games, do they? Wins do. Constant changes in the roster also had a similar impact, acting as a hindrance for the smooth functioning of the unit. Even though Sandesh Jhingan is would feel indebted to Kerala Blasters FC for his meteoric rise, sticking with a dysfunctional unit hardly helps in the growth of his career.
So, does his exit hint at a brighter future?
At the age of 26, Sandesh is in his prime, with at least five years of top football left under his belt. It is a known fact that the Chandigarh-based footballer gained prominence only during his ISL, in spite of frolicking in I-League clubs prior to his arrival in Kochi. So, his talent never went unnoticed, with his peaking coinciding at a time when the glamorous Indian Super League was making entry to the Television sets of Indian households. As per the norms, his International debut was inevitable while his impact was above par, producing a phenomenal display of defensive work just against India’s 0-0 draw against Qatar, roughly a month before his injury.
It’s absurd if you think that Sandesh is losing sleep over playing top-tier football, in fact, he is now open to foreign offers, given the quality of football he delivers. For the record, it was rumoured that clubs like Motherwell FC (Scottish Championship), Hallescher FC (German third division) and Al-Gharafa FC (Qatar Stars League) were all interested in securing his services. Keeping aside overseas deals, Sandesh has been heavily linked with Odisha FC, ATK, and FC Goa, even though none of them have completed the signing as of now. But, the question lies in which club will he benefit the most?
Irrespective of the destination, it is the quality of footballers he plays alongside, set to justify whether the move has worked in his favour. For instance, ATK Mohun Bagan, already packed with stoppers like John Johnson at the back, with even Tiri closing in a deal with the defending champions, it would be great for Sandesh to play alongside one of them, considering that two foreigners cannot be deputed at the defense at the same time. The case is similar in Chennaiyin FC, with Lucian Goian and Eli Sabia at the guarding duties. But with FC Goa, a wait and watch game is favourable, with the club losing two of its stalwarts - Carlos Pena and Mourtada Fall, and they are yet to shortlist the replacements.
With age on his side, things are booming from his perspective, especially with him set for an upgrade. Yes, you heard it right, an ‘upgrade.’ Kerala Blasters FC is yet to make their debut in an AFC accredited tournament, with Sandesh Jhingan on the same boat till now. But, it can change drastically in the upcoming seasons, with two continental spots - AFC Cup and AFC Champions League, up for grabs. That’s where he needs to prioritise before signing over the dotted line, which will decide whether he gets to play against top-quality opponents in the future or just shine above the rest in domestic competitions. For instance, joining either FC Goa or ATK Mohun Bagan will automatically make him eligible for continental action next season.
The footballer cemented his place in the Indian national team back in 2015, while his recent absence from the setup isn’t going to endanger his place in the starting XI. But, he is destined for bigger achievements than just being a player. Already lauded for his leadership skills in the domestic circuit, the sturdy defender is the frontrunner to own the captain’s armband post-Sunil-Chhetri era, with the Talismanic striker at the dusk of his career. Although we are not questioning his capabilities, with more experience under his belt, Sandesh will be in a better position to impart duties as a skipper when the need arises in a few year's time.
In all probability, it is a win-win situation for Sandesh Jhingan, with the footballer ready to carry on his glittering career, which only lacks trophies till now. But, that’s an automatic process, considering he develops as a footballer wherever he goes, provided his team is on the same page. This could well be the re-birth of Sandesh Jhingan, a transition which he deserves to grow as a footballer.