There was a moment in the first leg of the Mumbai City vs Bengaluru FC semi-final that was ‘peak Sandesh Jhingan’. Lallianzuala Changte he cut in from the left and unleashed a shot, Jhingan lunged at him, head first. You see, you think ‘Jhingan’ and this is the kind of action that comes to mind. Hair blowing, beard billowing, feet sliding into one tackle after another, head thrown into places most people wouldn’t set foot.
However, the memory does not make Jhingan happy.
“When I see myself doing that, I’m never proud of it,” he says. “For me, the best moment is when I’m standing there and the ball ends up at my feet. That’s the most beautiful form of defense, in my opinion. It might not look so good on TV (but it’s cool) because it means that you are very well positioned”.
“Sometimes though, (you don’t have a choice). Like against Mumbai, you know Chhangte cuts a lot. (In that case) I was going to shoot. You know the angle (I was going to take), but I couldn’t (block it). because my body was going in another direction and the only part left was my upper body, so I had to make sure I didn’t shoot (at the near post). gurpreet (Singh Sandhu) I would save anything, but I had to do my bit. I’m not proud of it. This is not a real defense. The real defense would be that she should have been there, closer to him. So if he had gone on goal, he would have kicked me in the leg and gone. No one would have noticed.”
It seems unusual for a man who, at first glance, seems to love nothing more than a tackle or three, but the numbers back him up.
For Bengaluru FC, it is 7th in terms of innings made (71 in the league). 80% of those are earned, but he doesn’t really win that many. And that’s not just this year, either. When he was crowned AIFF Footballer of the Year in 2021, he was the cornerstone holding Antonio Habas’s ATK Mohun Bagan defense together: he was eighth in tackles for that team (oddly, 71st in the league again).
However, he does not attach much importance to numbers. The way people perceive soccer is different, and that’s okay, he says. “You can make 100 tackles a game and win the game. If that’s the case, good for you! At the end of the day, it’s all about winning games. How you do it is up to you.”
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Jhingan is often criticized that he’s not very good with the ball at his feet, that he may not have what it takes to be a ‘modern defender’, but he himself is quite clear: “The best way is to always do whatever the teacher wants.” There’s a reason no coach benches him (if he’s fit) regardless of his philosophy of play, he laughs.
“I’m not saying I was like this from day one.” He says it’s about learning, growing within the game, listening to your coaches. “You have to be a student of this game,” he says, explaining how you can immerse yourself in soccer videos for hours and learn little things here and there: about team tactics, about individual players. “The more you do it, the more you broaden your vision. And then you find your way.”
Jhingan may have found his way, but it hasn’t always been easy. He left the Kerala Blasters after a six-year spell there, a move that led to the club retiring his shirt. However, he soon dropped out after he became embroiled in controversy after making a sexist comment after a difficult match. He acknowledged his mistake and apologized.
On the field, his transition was mixed. Fresh off a year-long layoff due to injury (LCA), he had been instrumental for ATKMB in the previous season. This had seen Croatian club HNK Sibenik coming. In Croatia, yes, he did not see a minute of action. He doesn’t think of that season as a disappointment or a failure. “I’m proud of myself because that club came for me and I had the choice between two clubs. It wasn’t me who pushed, they wanted me to come,” he says. Leaving India “where I have made a name for myself”, stepping out of his comfort zone, pushing himself – these are things he is proud of. However, he admits to a mistake. He feels the injury that sidelined him in Croatia could have been handled better by him.
“It’s not about mental strength,” he says when talking about bouncing back over and over again from injuries. “Life beyond (football) is so… heavy. You can’t compare the difficulties of football with the real difficulties of life. The mental (strength) I have is like a peanut compared to people (outside of football). soccer)”.
“I remember when I had my ACL (surgery) I met a man (at the hospital) who wanted me to meet his son. He had a nerve problem that meant he couldn’t walk or talk on his own. His my father told me he said he had been a footballer who wanted to be like me. Now if I sit there and (gloat in my own problems) then I’m doing that boy an injustice.”
It’s the kind of perspective that helped him become India’s best defender again. In Bengaluru, he is at peace again.
He, along with the team, had suffered at the start of the season, but the anger that sparked prompted him and them to continue. In the pre-match press conference, captain Sunil Chhetri talked about how veteran players often lose control in training during those difficult times. For Jhingan it’s always been about risking everything, even his head if he’s made a mistake (like Chhangte’s shot), so he wouldn’t tolerate complacency from anyone. That is a common trait in the backbone on this side of Bengaluru: Gurpreet, Jhingan, Chhetri, roy krishna.
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This mentality and his ability to organize the back line from the middle of a three-man defense have made him the foundation 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, one occasional involuntary entry at a time, Sandesh Jhingan keeps going.