Wearing her trademark #6 jersey, the legendary Oinam Bembem Devi marshalled her Eastern Sporting Union side in their opener against Jeppiaar Institute of Technology FC in the inaugural season of the Indian Women’s League. With the armband in tow, the 36-year old from Manipur led her side to an emphatic 7-1 win, with seven out of eight goals coming in the second half.
Hat tricks from strikers Kamala Devi and Kashmina MS ensured that the side from Imphal began the campaign in fine style. Devi, who is also the coach of the side, pulled the strings in midfield - excelling in a box-to-box role as her crucial interceptions helped start attacks and long balls forward wreaked havoc in the JIT defence.
Devi had announced her retirement on the last day of 2015 but was persuaded to return for the South Asian Games 2016 in Guwahati, where she led India to gold. These days, she is picking up her coaching badges along with her job in the Manipur Police force. And now, she has donned her playing kit to return to action in the IWL.
We at Sportskeeda caught up with her after the match as she spoke on a variety of topics. Here are a few excerpts!
Q: It’s been almost a year since you retired from international football. How has post-retirement life been so far?
A: (laughs) I am still very much in the game and plan to work in football only. With the support of the All India Football Federation (AIFF), I have been picking up my AFC coaching badges and have kept myself fit enough to still play at the competitive level.
Q: What are your thoughts on your match? What did you say to your teammates at half-time?
A: I am happy with the way we played. It was the first match and we have been practising only for the last 10 days, so a little weariness in the first half is natural. In the dressing room, I told the girls to play more freely and that a one-goal lead can go away anytime. Their goal came as a bolt in the blue and charged us to up the tempo, so were able to settle and score as much as we did towards the end.
Q: What do you think about the concept of this league? How is it helping the players?
A: Such initiatives are very important, of course. It helps us become much more financially secure and for the younger players, it is a wonderful experience for breaking the ice and make the jump to the senior level smoothly. Kashmina, who is an under-19 player, was very nervous playing today with the senior women and it showed in her first half display. I told her to play naturally as if it is just like any other game. And she scored three in the second half!
Instead of Delhi, it would have been better to organise these matches in the North-East like Imphal or Guwahati, or some other football-crazy area so that we could get more spectators to watch. From next year onwards, we shall be having a home and away system hopefully as well.
Q: What was your time in Maldives with New Radiant SC like? How different was it from what you are used to India?
A: In 2014, three of us from India went to play in the league in Maldives. It was a great experience as the stands were packed with supporters, which is always good for the players. Our IWL does not have foreigners, but there we had women from Bangladesh, Pakistan and even Germany to play with and compete against. At the end of it, I was given the Best Player award and I finished top-scorer as well.