Indian women's football team captain Bala Devi made history in January 2020 when she announced her move to Scottish Premiership side Rangers on a permanent deal. With the transfer, she became the first Indian woman footballer to sign a professional contract and also the first Asian international to join Rangers Women.
Bala Devi has been scoring for fun in the Senior National Women's Championship, and the Indian Women's League. Her incredible goal-scoring rate makes her a potential successor to Indian women's football legend Bembem Devi.
In an exclusive chat with Sportskeeda, Bala Devi spoke about her playing career, the Indian Women's League, the U17 Women's World Cup 2021, Rangers FC, the AFC Women's Club Championship and her Arjuna Award nomination.
Bala Devi began her story with memories of herself playing football in the local streets of Manipur. She said:
"My family is from a village near Imphal, Manipur. We grew up playing football. This is a remote state in the North East of India. My father was a former footballer and so were my brothers. I started playing with them, both my sister and me. My father noticed my niche and liking for the sport and encouraged me to keep playing."
"I mostly used to play with the young boys in my area as it was a rare sight to see girls play sports. I kept playing for school teams and local academies before I was scouted by the All India Football Federation (AIFF) to the Indian National Women's Team U-15 and I have never looked back."
The All India Football Federation (AIFF) started the Indian Women's League (IWL) in the 2017-18 season in a bid to promote women's football in the country. The tournament also encouraged ISL and I-League sides to start women teams.
Bala Devi played for sides like Manipur Police, Eastern Sporting Union and KRYPHSA before earning a move to Rangers FC in Scotland. When asked about the Indian Women's League and its impact, she said:
"The Indian Women’s League is start in the right direction for the growth of women's football in India. It is giving many young ,experienced and aspiring women footballers a platform and opportunity to display their talents to the world.
"Inclusion of better coaches, training facilities ,diet control and foreign exchanges will help Indian footballers in every possible way."
The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) founded the Asian Women's Club Championship in 2019 for women football clubs to experience Asian continental football. The Indian Women's League is still not affiliated to the AFC competitions.
When asked if the Indian women football clubs are ready to play against teams from rest of Asia, Bala Devi said:
"Any exposure for the Indian Women Footballers in the world stage is a big thumbs up. I believe this will help them to strengthen themselves. More exposure will gaurantee more experience and opportunity to upskill themselves and make the players and the team as a whole more confident."
Former I-League and current ISL side Bengaluru FC's partnership with Scottish Premiership side Rangers FC allowed Bala Devi to land a contract with the Scottish side in January 2020. She became the second Indian women's footballer after Aditi Chauhan to play in Europe.
Speaking about her experience at Rangers FC, Bala Devi said:
"Rangers FC, as a club, are a very well knit family and that’s what keeps them going. The training facilities here are excellent."
"The Women’s Rangers FC team has players from Canada Scotland, Northern Ireland, England, France and even as far as Venezuela and of course myself from India .All of the unit comprising of the coaches, staff and teammates are all very friendly. I am getting along with them very well."
"Apart from the weather, everything else in Scotland seems great. But I have adjusted to that over time. Glasgow is very beautiful and scenic. I love going to the parks and exploring new places."
Rangers Women are yet to win a league title in Scotland. Bala Devi gave us a preview of their upcoming season saying:
"All the team members are putting in their best during the practice and all the games. Every team aims to win the title and we are hopeful that this year the Rangers Women will be successful in doing so."
When asked about the fundamental differences in women's football between India and Europe, she said:
"Well, in both places the struggles are the same of women's football, however the level of play and training schedules are more organised . Also, being here one is exposed to more people and styles of play, which in turn enhances personal level of playing."
I want to set an example for women footballers from India and South Asia: Bala Devi
Bala Devi penned an 18-month contract with the club in the winter transfer window of the 2019-20 season. Her contract will expire at the end of the 2020-21 season in June 2021. When asked about her plans after her Rangers stint, she said:
"For me personally I want to give my best day in and day out and make whatever I can of all the opportunities I am given to play in the league and cup. I want to set an example for women footballers from India and South Asia that we can compete with the heavyweights of Europe as well."
The FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup, India which is scheduled in 2021 will be the first major women's football competition hosted by the All India Football Federation (AIFF). The event is currently under a cloud of uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic as many qualifier games in rest of the world are yet to take place. When asked about the potential impact of the event if it takes place, Bala Devi said:
"The FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in India , 2021 will be a very big opportunity for the Indian women footballers and for the Nation as well. Young and aspiring footballers will have an opportunity to showcase their talent on the global stage alongside the top teams in the world. This will also help future aspiring players to take up the sport professionally."
Bala Devi was also nominated for the Arjuna Award 2020. Reacting to her nomination, she said:
"I was in tears of joy when my family broke the news that I was nominated for the Arjuna Award. To be nominated is in itself a huge achievement and I hope many more footballers get nominated in the upcoming future."Published 29 Sep 2020, 11:47 IST