How Oinam Bembem Devi fought decades of indifference to bring recognition for Indian women's football
Despite being consistently ranked above their male counterparts, the Indian women’s national football team continues to play second fiddle. Currently occupying the 57th position out of 147 competitive playing nations, the squad’s victory over higher ranked teams such as the Netherlands, have highlighted their growth trajectory, over the past two decades.
Their recently retired captain, Manipur’s Oinam Bembem Devi is a name synonymous with the sport in India. In 2014, she became the first mainland Indian to turn professional, after signing for Maldivian outfit, New Radiant SC. However, this particular move wasn’t fuelled by the intention to move for a higher paycheque, but it was to garner the basic need that is still absent within the women’s game in India to date, professional football.
Lower ranked nations have professional leagues, India doesn’t: Devi
Speaking exclusively to Sportskeeda, she said, “Since the beginning of my career I remember that we pushed for a women’s league in India. There was a plethora of talent, and our performances spoke for themselves. Without any league, we used to beat some of the professional teams in Asia. Sadly, there were no takers for the women’s game in India, and that is yet to change even after my retirement.”
Devi’s initial foray into football came at the age of 13 when she saw a couple of boys playing in school. She said, “When I started playing, there were hardly any girls interested in football. Yes, there were girls, who were interested in individual sports, but not football. So I started playing with the boys. My father was very against this, and he used to always convince me to stop playing. I guess I was very stubborn!”
After being spotted by a local female footballer, she was asked to join one of Manipur’s only women’s football club at the time, UJB. It is at this juncture, that she learned the various terminologies of the sport. She added, “I didn’t know anything at the time and I slowly started getting better.”
In 1991, she fought off competition from close to 40 footballers to make it into the state U-13 squad at her very first attempt. By 1994, her prolific performances had garnered her a senior call-up. Despite a lack of game time, national coaches were quick to spot her talent, as she made her full national debut against Hong Kong in 1995.
She added, “At that point, I was so happy that I was selected to go to Malaysia, I wasn’t even thinking whether I would get to play a game.”
From then on, Devi was selected for the World Cup qualifiers, where she helped India reach the second phase of qualifying. However, financial woes remained a massive concern, as the sport wasn’t garnering enough eyeballs as a commercial entity.
Denied promotion for not playing ‘individual’ sport
In 1999, she got her first source of income, after being inducted as a trainee in the Manipur Police. But, the salary was too less to sustain her career.
She said, “They didn’t promote me to head constable till 2009, despite representing the state on several occasions. When I used to ask them about my promotion, they would say that you play with 14-15 other people, whereas individual sportspersons do it alone. They will be given first preference.”
Despite increasing family pressure, Devi continued with her passion and went from strength to strength, captaining India to historic victories. After a surprising win against Holland, India reached broke into the world top 50 for the first time, under her captaincy.
That being said, lack of game time proved to be a deterrent for the midfielder’s growth trajectory.
She added, “We hardly play, now we have zonal competition and all coming in, but before that there was nothing. We would have a one month camp in a year, and if we were lucky a few friendlies. It is a shame, that companies such as Reliance, who are pumping in so much for men’s football, can’t pay 10 % for a women’s league. This will just alleviate our performances, and reaching the World Cup would be much easier.”
Four consecutive South Asian Games gold medals also made Devi the most successful Captain in India. Both the 2014 and 2016 victories saw an elevated performance by Devi, thanks to her experience in the Maldives.
She said, “The authorities there don’t actually care much about money, they want the women’s game to develop there. Hence, they are giving their players exposure in their home league. Even Germans come and play there. They drew with us in Shillong, and it is the testimonial to the hard work they’re putting in.”
Seven players from the final team were from Manipur, making the state a cradle for Women’s football in India.
Devi added, “I feel football is a lifestyle in Manipur, and there is no discrimination between girls and boys. But if you go to other states, it’s still there. I can give you an example of a girl from Tamil Nadu. She had the potential to be one of the best players, but her parents didn’t allow her, because she had to be married. She doesn’t play any football anymore. If the football culture can be imprinted in other states, they can do better than Manipur.”
Not participated in WC or Olympics? no Arjuna Award: Sports Ministry
However, the 35-year old’s greatest regret remains the elusive Arjuna Award. Despite applying thrice for it, Devi was denied her claim as she never represented India at a ‘World Cup or Olympic event,’ as per the Sports Ministry. There is no particular clause in the Ministry’s criteria, which states that the athlete has to represent India at an international event. If such was the case then many footballers would also not be eligible for the award.
She added, “This is the biggest regret in my life, I wish I played an individual sport, which would make the state and Ministry recognise my efforts. Even after 21 years of playing for India, my state refuses to acknowledge my performances, and the Ministry says I’m not good enough. My question to them was then why are the Men’s footballers getting this benefit, to which they had no reply.”
If this is the case, then various Indian footballers who never played abroad or haven’t won as many South Asian Games medals as Devi, how do they have Arjuna Awards? Several influencers in Manipur are pushing Devi to apply one last time this year. She added, “I’m just tired, they were supposed to give me a good job 15 years ago. That is now again being processed. For the award, I will try one last time.”
Former Lok Sabha member P A Sangma recently wrote to Home Minister Rajnath Singh to grant Devi an Arjuna Award stating ‘there was no one more deserving than her for the accolade.’
Having completed her AFC ‘B’ license coaching programme, Devi is on the lookout for a job. She said,” A local boys club has asked me to come and look, I will assess my options and take things further.”
The South Asian Games final against Nepal was a routine 4-0 victory. However, the match itself was symbolic of Devi’s influence on the team. She acted as a pivot between attack and defence seamlessly creating opportunities for the forward line. A packed Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Shillong did justice to the attention, glory and recognition she never got.
An emotional Devi said, “Even though the state of women’s football in India is not that good. I’m lucky to have represented a country, which represents so many dreams. It’s not every day that you can say I have a billion people rooting for me, I could do that for the 21 years. Not many get that opportunity.”
Update: Devi had been nominated for 2017’s Arjuna Award by the AIFF along with Gurpreet Singh Sandhu and Jeje Lalpekhlua, and was recommended for the prestigious award on Thursday. He is set to become the only female footballer after Shanti Mullick in 1983 to win the Arjuna Award.