Indian Women's National Team Footballer Bala Devi hailed the progress in women's football in the country in recent years.
In an exclusive chat to Sportskeeda after her return from a week-long trial with Scottish giants Rangers, Bala said that interest in women's football in the country will only soar in the future, with the more professional structure, and more importantly, the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup next year.
"Women’s Football has really progressed far in recent years. We now have a professional league in the form of the Hero IWL. To add to that, the players in the national team get to play matches all year round. In 2019, we have played more than 20 matches, and we are yet to play the South Asian Games," she said.
Since January 2019, the national team has played in the COTIF Cup, had away matches against Hong Kong, Indonesia, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam. In addition, there was the Gold Cup in Bhubaneswar - involving Myanmar, Iran and Nepal, the SAFF Championship - which Indian won in Nepal, and the Olympic qualifiers where India missed out on qualification for the next round by a whisker.
"To add to that, we are also hosting the FIFA U-17 World Cup next year. It really is a great initiative by the Federation, and we hope that hosting the World Cup will go a long way in propagating the cause of Women’s Football across the country," Bala beamed.
What did she think of her stint at Rangers, then?
"It was a very good experience for me. I got to learn a lot of new things there. It was quite cold in Scotland, and it was quite a challenge to train in sub-zero temperatures. But the local players and the coaches really helped a lot, and with their tips, I could maximise my performance there," she said.
She also sounded confident at being able to see more Indian women players pursuing careers in Europe.
"Most certainly, we can have female players in Europe," she said, "I think a lot of the players in the current national team are capable of matching-up to the European standards, and we don’t need to wait 10 years to see that happening."
Bala said that, to this day, she looks up to Bembem Devi as her inspiration. Bembem was the head coach of Manipur Police Sports Club, who Bala represented in the IWL. It was in the IWL that Bala forced a conversation about her missing from the national team, by scoring 26 goals and ending up as the tournament's top-scorer.
"Bembem Devi is a very big inspiration for me. Not just me, but many of my teammates in the national team look up to Bem-di. I have had the privilege of being captained. She is a wonderful person, and always helps out the youngsters," she said.
Bala also reiterated that the women's footballers in the country have to thank the Federation for the changes that have been brought in place in the last few years. Since making her debut 14 years ago, she said this is the most professional phase she has seen in Indian Football.
"As I have said before, the structure of Women’s Football in India has changed over the last few years. The biggest thing is that we get to play frequently, be it the Hero IWL, the National Football Championships, or International Football. As footballers, we just want to play all year round, and that is something that we getting to do now," the Manipuri striker said.
So, what are her plans for the future? "Right now, I’m just thinking of improving my game and winning as many matches as possible for the national team. I have not really given this much thought. I just want to keep playing football for as long possible," Bala said.
She also said that the thought of not playing football has not yet crossed my mind. When asked about whether she could see herself dipping her feet in the coaching pond, Bala simply said that she would only cross that bridge when she gets there, and not anytime soon.
She also said that there is plenty of talent in the national team right now. But, Bala warned against having monikers like the "next Bala Devi" or "next Bembem Devi".
"Every player is different, and we should account for the individuality of athletes. As footballers as well, we should draw inspiration from our favourite players, but be mindful of retaining our individuality in our playing style," she finished.