19 years and counting - The legend of Oinam Bembem Devi
A name synonymous with Indian Women's Football, Oinam Bembem Devi, has been a leading light for Indian Women's Football over the last 19 years. In her illustrious and star-studded career, Bembem has virtually been a part of everything that the Indian Women have won over the last two decades.
For her scintillating performances, Bembem was awarded the first ever AIFF Woman Footballer Of The Year in 2001, six years after she first represented India at the tender age of fifteen. She was then again awarded the second AIFF Woman Footballer of The Year in 2013.
Taking a trip down memory lane, a nostalgic Bembem, vividly recalls the place where it all first started, Imphal.
"I loved Football even at my tender age," says Bembem, who started playing Football at the age of 10. "We used to live some distance away from the playing fields. But I always had a craving for Football. I wanted to play, even after being thwarted by my father, who always pushed me towards academics.”
"I was good academically, but Football was something which I craved for.”
With a short, sturdy look and cropped up hair it was easy for Bembem to pass off as a boy. Gradually she started playing with the boys of her locality by donning an alias name of 'Bobo'. Recalling that facade, a smile, though ingenious, draws on her face and within seconds, it bursts into laughter.
"(Laughs) I remember that. I don't know what I was thinking, but it points that I could and I would cross any limit to fulfill my affection towards Football.”
"It was one of those moments, when you hardly think before you act. It was conceived out of sheer passion and emotion.”
Within a span of months, her Footballing acumen increased to a level, where boys would want to be a part of her team. Soon, the word of the magnitude of her skill spread like forest-fire, which, although let to the unveiling of her masquerade as 'Bobo', opened a portal of journey for her, in the form of a Club side, YAWA.
"I only wanted the ball at my feet, in those days. YAWA helped me a lot in that. It was one of the phases in my life, which is sincerely revered.”
Bembem's playing career would witness another drastic change soon. In 1991, following an excellent spell of games, Bembem was selected for the U-13 Manipur State Team, which rocketed her into National spotlight. Although, it would take another four years for Bembem to make her debut for India, she would continue to excel, impressing fans and critics alike, in the process.
"In those days, all I kept thinking about was Football. I made many sacrifices for it. There were hard times, when I couldn't do as the Coach asked me to, but there were good times too.”
"The Grassroots football of Manipur is built on a solid base of positive mentality towards the sport. And that is something which has profited the State, while helping me to reach where I am today.”
In 1995, at the age of just 15, Oinam Bemem Devi made her debut for India and this marked the beginning of one of the most illustrious careers in Indian Women's Football. With a certain spring and exuberance in her voice, she explains her first experience in the Blue of India.
"The feeling which burst into my mind when I walked onto the pitch was of honour. I was honoured and still am to be part of the National Setup. This is something which has made me.”
She extends her vocal chords and switches the tone up, with a slight lump she says.
"It was one of those feelings, which could never ever be replicated. It is unparalleled. The joy of representing one's own Country is so immense and so much emotional.”
After her first stint, Bembem became an integral part of the National Setup. She became, as Franceso Totti is to AS Roma - indispensable. Her continued scintillating and mesmerizing performances, which often led to a complete domination in the midfield, was rewarded by the All India Football Federation in 2001, when Oinam Bembem Devi became the first ever recipient of the AIFF Women's Footballer Of The Year Award.
"I was very happy when the AIFF rewarded me with the first of its kind award. It meant a lot to me, it does even now.”
In 2003, Bembem Devi was awarded the armband to captain the Indian National Women's Team in AFC Qualifying Competition, held in Thailand. It was under her leadership that the Indian Women won the SAFF Championship (thrice in the years 2010,2012 and 2014) and the 11th South Asian Games (2009), held in Bangladesh.
"There is pressure when you are the Captain of your Country. There is pressure to perform. But managing pressure comes with time. I am delighted and honoured to lead my country in competitions. It means the World to me.”
The All India Football Federation was quick to recognize her performances and her attitude to lead from the front. For this, the AIFF lauded Bembem with a second AIFF Women's Footballer of The Year Award in 2013.
On June 9, 2014, months before leading India to a historic third triumph in the 2014 SAFF Women's Championships, Bembem Devi packed her bags for Maldives, making history in the process by being the first ever Indian Woman to ply her trade in alien soil.
In the Maldivian league, Bembem enacted her magical self, as she helped her Club, Radiant SC, to the title by firing six goals and providing three assists in three matches. For her excellent performances, Bembem was awarded the Player Of The Tournament.
"Playing in Maldives was a good experience. We shared knowledge on almost every aspect with each other. I thank the league for making me their Player Of The Tournament.”
Now 36, and closing in on her 20th year in professional football, Bembem Devi, is all for the next challenge which presents itself in the form of Olympic Qualifiers. And she is yearning to cover herself in glory at the World stage.
"We have a good squad with us and we can easily clinch the fixtures, if we work hard. We have the necessary firepower, we just need to utilize it," she quips.
India are clubbed alongside hosts Myanmar and Sri Lanka in Group A of Olympic Qualifiers. The Indian Eves play their first match against Sri Lanka on March 13, 2015 and then take on Myanmar on March 15.
"The squad is feeling good and we all have set our personal target, which are fringed by that of the Team's.”
Oinam Bembem Devi, as in the last decade, is slated to captain India in these Qualifiers.
"It will be my privilege to lead my Country on this mega stage. I wish to repay the trust in my by playing the best football of my life.”
Nevertheless, what sets Oinam Bembem Devi apart is not her experience, acumen or her graceful touch on the ball, but her never-say-attitude framed within the tough walls of mental strength. When India takes to the pitch against Sri Lanka on March 13, 2015, all eyes will be on India's star player and that is of course, the living legend.