Everything on the line: How Sandesh Jhingan became India's best defender (again)

Sandesh Jhingan is back to doing what he does best. Emmanual Yogini /Focus Sports/ ISL

There was a moment in the first leg of the Mumbai City vs Bengaluru FC semifinal that was 'peak Sandesh Jhingan'. Lallianzuala Chhangte cut in from the left and unleashed a shot, Jhingan threw himself at it, head first. You see, you think 'Jhingan' and this is the kind of action that comes to mind. Hair flying, beard flowing, feet sliding into tackle after tackle, head being thrown into places most people wouldn't put their feet to.

The memory doesn't make Jhingan happy, though.

"When I see myself doing that, I'm never proud of it," he says. "For me, the best moment is when I'm actually standing there and the ball ends up at my feet. That's the most beautiful form of defence, in my opinion. It may not look so good on television, [but it's great] because it means you are so well positioned."

"Sometimes, though, [you have no choice]. Like against, Mumbai, you know Chhangte cuts back a lot. [In that instance] he was going to shoot. You know the angle [he was going to take], but I couldn't [block it] because my body was going in different direction and the only part left was my upper body so I had to make sure he doesn't get off a shot [at the near post]. I was confident Gurpreet [Singh Sandhu] would save anything, but I had to my bit. I am not proud of it. This is not real defending. Real defending would be that I should have been there, closer to him. Then if he had gone for goal, it would have hit my leg and gone. Nobody would have noticed."

It seems unusual for a man who, on the face of it, seems to love nothing more than a crunching tackle or three, but the numbers back him up.

For Bengaluru FC, he's seventh in terms of tackles made (71st in the league). 80% of those are won, but he really doesn't make that many. And that's not just this year, either. When he was crowned AIFF footballer of the year in 2021, he was the rock that held Antonio Habas' ATK Mohun Bagan defence together: he was eighth in terms of tackles made in that team (curiously, 71st in the league again).

He doesn't put much stock to the numbers, though. The way people perceive football is different, and that's fine, he says. "You may put in 100 tackles a game and win the match. If that's the case good for you! At the end of the day, it's about winning games. How you do that is up to you."

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There's often a criticism levelled at Jhingan that he's not great with the ball at his feet, that he may not have what it takes to be a 'modern defender', but for the man himself it's pretty clear: "The best way is to always do what the gaffer wants." There's a reason no coach benches him (if he's fit) regardless of their playing philosophy, he says with a laugh.

"I'm not saying I was like this from day one." He says it's all about learning, growing within the game, listening to your coaches. "You need to be a student of this game," he says explaining how you can immerse yourself in football videos for hours and pick up small things here and there: about team tactics, about individual players. "The more you do it, the more you expand your vision. And then you find your way."

Jhingan may have found his way, but it's not always been smooth sailing. He left the Kerala Blasters after a six-year stint there, a move that prompted the club to retire his shirt. It was soon un-retired, though, after he was caught in a controversy after making a sexist comment after a tough match. He acknowledged his mistake and apologised.

On the field, his transition was a mixed one. Having just recovered from a year-long injury layoff (ACL), he had been pivotal for ATKMB in the previous season. This had seen Croatian club HNK Sibenik coming calling. In Croatia, though, he didn't see a minute of action. He doesn't think of that stint as a disappointment or a failure. "Why I'm proud of myself is because that club came for me, and I had an option to choose from two clubs. It's wasn't me pushing for it, they wanted me to come," he says. Leaving India "where I have made a name for myself", leaving his comfort zone, pushing himself: these are things he is proud of. He owns up to one error, though. He feels the injury that saw him sidelined in Croatia could have been better managed by him.

"It's not about mental strength," he says when talking about rebounding again and again from injuries. "Life beyond [football] is so... heavy. You can't compare the hardships of football to the real hardships of life. The mental [strength] I have is like a peanut compared to people [outside football]."

"I remember, when I had my ACL [surgery] done, I met a man [in the hospital] who wanted me to meet his son. He had a nerve problem which meant he couldn't walk or talk on his own. His father told me that he had been a footballer who wanted to be like me. Now, if I sit there and [wallow in my own issues], then I'm doing an injustice to that boy."

It's the kind of perspective that's helped him get back to being the best defender in India. At Bengaluru, he's at peace again.

He, along with the team, had suffered early on in the season but the rage that brought about drove him, and them, on. At the pre-match press conference, captain Sunil Chhetri had spoken about how senior players often lost the rag in training during those tough times. For Jhingan it's always been about putting everything on the line, even your head if you've made a mistake (like for the Chhangte shot) so he would brook no complacency from anyone. That's a common trait to the spine of this Bengaluru side -- Gurpreet, Jhingan, Chhetri, Roy Krishna.

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This mentality and his ability to marshal the backline from the middle of a three-man defence have made him the bedrock of this now excellent Bengaluru side. He's back to doing what he does best.

And now they are in the final. One step at a time, an occasional unwilling tackle at a time, Sandesh Jhingan keeps on keeping on.