Indian women footballers have always remained poor cousins of their male counterparts. No matter whether our women footballers fare well on the international stage or win international tournaments, they are invariably meted out with step-motherly treatment. Cash awards seldom come their way, little or no media space is reserved for them – one can go on and on.
Meet veteran Indian women’s football player Oinam Bembem Devi, who brushes aside this glum scenario and tries hard to paint a rosy picture of the sport in India.
“It’s very easy to get disheartened, given the low-profile of women’s football in the country. One has to stay positive. A FIFA delegation comprising of FIFA Consultant on Women Football Monica Stabb of Germany and FIFA Development Officer Dr. Shaji Prabhakaran visited Manipur last December. I urged them to set up academies for women footballers like our men have. They promised to do their best,” Bembem told Sportskeeda in an exclusive interview.
The 34-year-old, who captained the Indian eves to a convincing triumph in the 2012 Women’s SAFF Football Championship in Colombo, Sri Lanka last September, is fully convinced that the holding of more domestic tournaments coupled with organized preparation and planning can help the Indian women raise the performance bar.
“There is a pressing need for holding more tournaments at the domestic level. As you have more tournaments at the domestic level, more new talents would come up, and it will also ensure a strong supply line to the national team. At the moment, very few tournaments are held,” opined Bembem, who scored one of the goals in the Indian eves’ 3-1 win over Nepal in the final of the 2nd SAFF Football Championship.
The Manipuri girl, who has been donning the India colours for 17 years since making her international debut in 1995, believes that the All India Football Federation (AIFF) must initiate efforts to conduct a national women’s football league on the lines of the men’s I-League.
“Women’s football needs a big push. I think it will be a great thing if AIFF is able to hold a national women’s football league like the men’s I-League. Such a league will do a lot of good to women football in India; it will also encourage youngsters to take up women’s football,” observed Bembem, who was adjudged the AIFF Woman Footballer of the Year in 2001.
“It was the best moment of my international career,” she says with a glint of pride. Interestingly, that was the only time the award was handed out by the AIFF.
Women’s football hardly draws in crowds. Even the senior nationals that are held every year are a mere formality. Bembem is not sure why there is a lack of interest in women’s football, but reckons that better job opportunities can surely help resuscitate the dipping interest.
“Save for Railways and Police, no one is employing women footballers. Look at Yumnam Kamala Devi, Laishram Naobi Chanu and N. Montessori Chanu; they did not get any jobs in Manipur and had to opt for Bihar as they landed jobs in Railways. Also, parents don’t encourage daughters to do jobs outside their home town, which is a hindrance as well,” quipped Bembem, who is employed in the Manipur State Police.
Sponsors often shy away from lending their helping hand to women’s football.
“I fail to understand why sponsors don’t want to come forward to support women’s football. Indian women’s football can only go up if there is significant corporate support,” Bembem didn’t hide her frustration.
Talking of the dwindling interest in women’s football, Bembem cited the example of the Bengal team.
“Well, Bengal women’s team was the team to beat in the late nineties. The national team had 8-9 players from Bengal, it was tough to overcome them in domestic tournaments. But in the last SAFF tournament in Sri Lanka, there was only one Bengal player in the side,” she pointed out.
The Indian men’s football team gets much better facilities than their women counterparts. Yet, the men’s team is ranked 166th in the FIFA rankings, while the women’s team is ranked 52nd. Bembem refused to draw any parallels, but dwelt on the need to play more international matches.
“We are ranked 52nd in the FIFA rankings. We need to play international matches on a consistent basis; if we are able to do that, then there will be a substantial improvement in our football standards and we will climb up in the world rankings. I can say with confidence that we can break into the top-20 if we get to play more international matches,” she says, sounding upbeat.
Women’s football is dominated by countries like Japan, Brazil, US and Germany. What is it that the Indian eves need to do to come anywhere close to them?
“You have got to realize that all these powerhouses of women’s football have a strong base. They offer coaching to youngsters at the under-12, under-14 and under-16 age brackets. Look at us. In Manipur, of course coaching is provided to youngsters at the under-12, under-14 and under-16 age levels, but the same cannot be said about the rest of the country. There is a huge difference in their physical fitness and ours. The need of the hour is to have a solid base; we need to focus on the grassroots level. There has to be more organized coaching at various age levels. We also must watch videos of how top teams play and try to learn from them,” Bembem puts things in perspective.
The Indian captain, who has scored 30 goals from 48 internationals, asserts that regular exposure trips are a must-have for women footballers.
“I went on a 15-day exposure trip to Germany in 1997. That experience really helped me. We need regular exposure tours to countries which are formidable forces in world’s women’s football.”
Manipur’s contribution to Indian women’s football has been immense. The North-Eastern state has regularly supplied players to the national team. Even at the 2012 SAFF Championships, the Indian team had ten players from Manipur – seven based in the state and three employed in Bihar.
“Women have huge passion for football in Manipur. Youngsters take to football at an early age. If we have more improved facilities, our girls can only get better,” she revealed.
Bembem, who started playing for Yana Club in 1991 as a 13-year-old, and later for Sun Club in 1993, enjoys the role model status in the Indian team.
“All the girls look up to me. At times, if I’m injured, girls would tell me: ‘Didi, you just stand on the field and we will do the job for you.’ If I say something, they listen with rapt attention.”
Having served the country with distinction, Bembem is now looking to blow the referee’s whistle.
“I have applied for the AFC B license; if I secure the B license, I will apply for the A license.”
Do coaching plans in the pipelines indicate that she will hang up her football boots?
“I’ve not decided anything on that now,” Bembem fires as the parting shot.