Sandhu, Jhingan, and Thapa: The Chandigarh boys are India's spine

In the annals of Indian football, there's not been too much of a storied history of the northern Indian union territory of Chandigarh -- most Punjab players have been from the villages closer to Hoshiarpur, Mahilpur, Mithapur and Ludhiana -- which shouldn't come as a major surprise considering the relative newness of the city itself.

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On Sunday, three Chandigarh boys will be playing the biggest game of their lives, knowing how their beginnings from the St. Stephen's Academy shaped their early years in the sport. Gurpreet Sandhu, Sandesh Jhingan and Anirudh Thapa are the spine of this Indian team (behind the inimitable Sunil Chhetri). What each of them also shares is a coach that saw the spark in them and encouraged them to go the distance with the sport.

The titan in goal

Sandhu, who appropriately signs off his social media posts with the hashtag #AapKaPyaraBurjKhalifa (Yours truly, Burj Khalifa), is the only survivor apart from Sunil Chhetri from their last Asian Cup in 2011. At the time, he was an unused, third-choice keeper. Eight years on, he stands tall as his nation's best goalkeeper.

His first coach in Chandigarh, Surinder Singh, fondly remembers how Sandhu came to join St. Stephen's School when in class three, and his natural height and weight made him a suitable candidate for the goalkeeper's slot.

"When we had trials, we judged the children on height, weight, their jump, speed, and on the basis of that we got him into football," says Surinder, of Sandhu, who would go on to play for Chandigarh at age group levels within the next four years. His performances caught the eye of Colm Toal, who was head coach for youth development when Bob Houghton was in charge of the senior team.

Toal would pick him for India's age-group levels, hastening his progress first to professional football with East Bengal, then to the national team, and eventually in Norway with Stabaek.

"Gurpreet's basics were [self-taught] because we never had specialised goalkeeping coaches," says Singh. "When he went to the national camp, a proper goalkeeping coach would give him attention. Whenever he would come back, there was a change in his game. He is very hard working. You give him any kind of work, he'll do it. Any load, he'll take it. He will overcome, because he wants to improve."

The wall of defence

Jhingan is a blood-and-guts defender, or as Minerva Punjab owner and good friend Ranjit Bajaj puts it, "more than technical skills and actual football ability, he is all b**ls and heart." Bajaj likens him to Indian hockey's Jugraj Singh in the uniqueness of both defenders, always willing to throw their bodies on the line in an attempt to stop the ball from entering the goal.

It's a feature of Jhingan's game that Surinder remembers from when he was a student at another school and wanted to get into St. Stephen's Academy around the same time that Sandhu had started playing for the junior Indian teams. Jhingan, at 25, a year younger than Gurpreet, would catch Toal's eye when he led his Academy side to the Nike Manchester United Premier Cup (U-15) in Goa in January 2008, beating age-group teams from Mohun Bagan, East Bengal, Salgaocar to earn the right to represent India in the world finals in Malaysia.

"Whenever he plays, if you watch his game, from his childhood itself, he will put his body in front of the ball. He will put his head -- very daring, and he will give all his efforts for the team," says Surinder.

The creative spark in midfield

Thapa is the unlikeliest of the trio of Chandigarh boys that could determine the fate of Stephen Constantine's India on Sunday. Originally from Dehradun, Thapa came to St Stephen's School in class V as a slightly-built boy on the insistence of his father Pramod, himself a striker with ONGC. If you catch him in the flesh, 20 now, he still looks like a child, and it was his football intelligence that struck Surinder immediately.

"If you see, his eyes have it. He thinks through his eyes. When he receives the ball, he already knows even before he has received the ball what he needs to do with it," he says of Thapa, whom Constantine fielded as a forward in a friendly against Jordan in November when flight connections forced the delayed arrival of some of the attacking players. "When he was U-12, I could play him in U-16 team because he was very intelligent. India team also have done the same thing, when he played for the U-17 team, he was 14, and they took him [now] from the junior group."

When India last won some silverware in football, it was Thapa who set the ball rolling for Chhetri with a perfect training ground routine free-kick, allowing his senior teammate to get the first goal against Kenya in the Intercontinental Cup final. He is young, but already an invaluable cog in the Indian team, giving them options in midfield to play two central midfielders, or adding to the attacking midfield options when India need to up the ante.

National team coach, Stephen Constantine, is a big fan. "His work ethic is fantastic, and you don't often get that with players with fantastic ability. He is extremely hard working, committed, and doesn't mind putting his foot in. I would expect him to contribute more and more to Indian football as he gains more experience," he says.

What both Surinder and Bajaj maintain is how connected all three are to their roots. "He [Sandhu] makes it a point to come and talk to junior goalkeepers. He watches practice sessions and picks out a 16-year-old to have a chat with," says Bajaj of Sandhu's occasional visits to Minerva Punjab. "I have seen him do it every time he visits our academy. I think somebody probably did that with him once and he really loved it."

Jhingan returns to Chandigarh to train with younger players as well, but the most affection is reserved for the rising star, Thapa. "When he comes to school, he's just like a child," says Surinder. "Teachers still say he looks like he's still in school. 'Why don't you get us more children like Gurpreet or Anirudh?' they ask me.

"We love our boys and we pray for the national team to win and get good results in the Asian Cup."