‘Families should let girls play’: Indian women’s football great Bembem Devi

Oinam Bembem Devi

Oinam Bembem Devi   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The former Indian captain speaks on Indian Women’s League, Ngangom Bala Devi and more

The eruption of a sudden, short-lived roar from the Bangalore Football Stadium startles me as I enter the arena. With about five minutes left in the Indian Women’s League final, for a moment, it looked like KRYPHSA were about to make it 3-3 against Gokulam Kerala in the Indian Women’s League (IWL) final on Friday. But the ball doesn’t find the net. Hence, the short-lived roar.

Gokulam Kerala held on to their one-goal lead to be crowned champions of the fourth edition of the IWL. The winners revelled amidst the chenda beats and whistles and applause from the 1000-plus crowd. A photojournalist covey captured the colourful celebration, which preceded the prize distribution ceremony, wherein the winners took home a cheque of ₹5 lakh along with the trophy and other awards.

Among those who gave away the prizes was Oinam Bembem Devi, who is among the best-ever women’s footballers India has produced. This January, she became the first woman footballer to be awarded the Padma Shri.

Bembem, 39, retired from international football in 2016 and is pursuing a career in coaching. Witnessing the players’ celebration and the appreciation they received on Friday, she might have wished to play in this era. This isn’t to say that women’s football in India is in the pink of health now. But it is at least less obscure than during the days of Bembem when there weren’t even jersey sponsors. Opportunities were rare, too. She used to cut her hair short and give herself boyish-names such as Bobo or Amko so she could play in the local clubs in Imphal, her hometown.

Bembem shares her thoughts on Indian football with MetroPlus.


Compared to your early days as a player, what has changed in women’s football in India?

A lot of things have changed. For instance, we did not have a brand sponsoring our jerseys. We would get our own practice kits. Only from the late 2000s, we had practice kits. Nike came on board as sponsors. We got a good daily allowance. We travelled by air. Before that, we used to travel in buses and trains. Now, things have improved and so has the performance of the teams.

The President of India Ram Nath Kovind presenting the Arjuna Award to Bembem.

The President of India Ram Nath Kovind presenting the Arjuna Award to Bembem.   | Photo Credit: RV Moorthy

Has it become easier for women to choose football as a career in India?

Yes. You now have the Indian Women’s League, which has a lot of sponsors. And, if you are good enough, you get financial assistance. If you perform well in the tournament, you will get noticed. After that, if you keep working hard, you can have a good career as a women’s footballer.

Speaking of which, recently, Ngangom Bala Devi, who happens to be from your state (Manipur), became the first Indian woman pro-footballer when she signed an 18-month deal with the Scottish club, Rangers FC…

Yes, I feel happy for her. It is a big opportunity. She has also opened the gates for future players from India to play abroad. I hope she does well.

Manipur produces a lot of footballers from India. What does it do right?

The other North Eastern states such as Meghalaya, and Assam are also trying to produce good talent. Manipur, however, has a good grassroots program. And, we regularly organise tournaments. So, there are more opportunities for players to perform and scouts to find new talents.

Why do you think that IWL is a good launchpad?

Players of all ages can play in the Indian Women’s League... under-17, under-19… So, it becomes easier for national scouts to choose the best young players from the tournament and improve them. The performances of the under-19 players this year were good.

In your playing days, you went abroad a few times for training. What did you learn from those trips?

I was in Germany for 15 days. I trained under different coaches and learnt a lot… When you go on these foreign trips and play friendly matches against higher-ranked opponents, your game improves and confidence increases.

What are the challenges faced by women’s football in India?

I think in our villages, families don’t want girls to get into sports. However, now you see girls can do anything in India — I managed to get Padma Shri. Families should change their mindset that girls can’t do well in sports. They should be allowed to do what they want. Players should also continue to work hard for Indian football to improve.

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Printable version | Apr 10, 2020 3:55:17 PM |

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