Sandesh Jhingan bounces back from ACL injury to become footballer of the year

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Sandesh Jhingan thought he was dreaming when on Wednesday he was named AIFF Men’s Footballer of the Year for 2020-2021 season. What made it even more surreal was the fact that the announcement of the award came on the day of his 28th birthday.

“Sab sapne jaisa laga. (It felt like a dream),” said Jhingan, who plays as centre-back for ATK Mohun Bagan in the Indian Super League (ISL).

“I was quite surprised, but I was also happy at the same time. This being announced on my birthday, it was one of the best gifts I could have imagined.”

Jhingan was rewarded for his stellar role in helping ATK Mohun Bagan reach the ISL 2020-21 final where they narrowly lost to Mumbai City FC 2-1 after a 90th minute goal by Bipin Singh. But that didn’t overshadow Jhingan’s brilliant work throughout the season as the coaches of ISL and I-League clubs voted him the best player of the season.

He was also an important player for the national team, which recently finished third in their group in the second round of joint 2022 World Cup and 2023 Asian Cup qualifiers to keep the hopes alive for the Asian Cup qualification.

The recent success both at the domestic and international arenas has come after a period setbacks, pain and uncertainty. The Chandigarh-born defender had suffered an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury, which, in many cases, proves to be career-ending. He missed the entire 2019-2020 season.

However, Jhingan kept working hard and successfully bounced back as an even better player.

“I remember this time last year, I woke up at 3.45 am on my birthday and started my workout at 4 am. I worked on my rehab and didn’t stop until I could get back on the field again. I had to keep motivating myself as I wanted to come back and help my club and country. I learned a good lesson – injuries will happen, but you need to keep going, and never throw in the towel,” he said.

“I am a firm believer that everything happens for good, and if you stay positive, the good Lord will bless you with things.

“There is always someone who has achieved more than you and there’s always someone who has suffered more than you. You should be content with what you have and work hard to get better. What happened to me with that injury is nothing. It’s nothing compared to the real challenges of life.

“…I felt bad that I could not provide my service on the pitch. But I didn’t sympathise with myself. I didn’t let anyone sympathise with me, for me. I just got down to work…I just kept believing, kept doing what I had to do and of course, it was a very long 13-14 months to come back but everything happens for good and I was very happy that on 20th November I made my comeback.”

Talking about the World Cup Qualifiers where India finished third after playing tame draws against Afghanistan and Bangladesh, Jhingan admitted that India could have done “better”, but admitted that it was time to look ahead.

“We tried our best, we gave everything we could…we should have done better, honestly. You can’t change it, you got to look forward. We finished third, now it’s about doing well in the Asian qualifiers,” Jhingan said.

“The mentality of the squad is that even if we had topped the group, we would feel that we could have done better. Of course, we wanted to do more. We could have done better and we should have done better. I’m the first one who will raise my hand and say we did not play to our potential.

“…Our next aim is to do really well in the Asian qualifiers and then step up each time. We want to do well and play the Asian Cup. We want to do much better than last time and try to qualify from the group and play the knockout stage, that’s the plan now.”

Jhingan said he was learning a lot from the national team coach Igor Stimac, former Croatia international and Premier League player.

“There are lots of small things I’ve picked up that have made me more professional. He himself has played as a defender at the highest level – at the World Cup and in the Premier League, so it’s a learning process every day with him,” Jhingan said.

“I believe I am a very good learner, I learn from everyone, from our gaffer as well…of course he helped me a lot in defending crosses.

“…very happy to have him as our national team coach, especially being a centre-back helps me a little bit more because he played in the same position.”

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