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Bembem Devi: The revolution in Indian women's football

Written by: Neelam, Punit Tripathi

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In a free-wheeling chat, Bembem talks about Indian women's football like never before. Speaking about its problems and how she defied all odds, the former Indian captain plans to take the game ahead post retirement…

In a country known to be exponents of male chauvinism or at least practicing it on the field, Bembem Devi has defied all odds to reach where she is today. There’s a massive chance you don’t know her closely, even higher of having no idea who she is. Here, at Khel Now, we try to explore such stories and give them the credit these footballers deserve.

Bembem has been playing football at the highest level for the last twenty years, spearheading the Indian football team and placing it amongst the top 50 football playing nations in the world. Time and again, the Manipuri ‘lady’ is reminded of her age and the work she still puts in to stay fit and perform at the highest level.

 

Bembem Devi has redefined Indian women's football over the years

 

Talking about the time she started her journey, the 35-year old takes us through her timeline and begins with, “When I started playing football, there were hardly girls who were interested in the game. I must say, it has been a long journey.”

Jumping onto the next pedestal just showed us the state of women’s football in India. Bembem continued from where she had left, adding, “The first official tournament I ever played in my career was with a boys’ team at the age of 14. They had given me a name ‘Bobo’, a name I’m still called by in my locality. After the initial break, there has been no looking back.”

Where did she start? A question that almost pulled us back. With a smile, Bembem replied, “I started playing in Imphal with children who lived in my locality and a little later, I also played for my school.” Who would’ve known that a girl, known for her flamboyance and control over the ball, would be leading the Indian tricolour for several years in the future.

Bembem Devi has made 82 appearances for the Indian national team. At 15, Bembem made her international debut against Guam in the Asian Women’s Championship, playing most of her career as a midfielder. Representing Indian national colors for 21 years is no mean feat and Bembem has proven she’s not conventional in her achievements.

Bembem is known for her excellent dribbling skills and her footwork. The hardwork she has put to play at the highest level for 20 long years is surely an achievement in itself adding to her glories, Bembem also became the first Indian player to play for a foreign club when she turned out for New Radiant Sports Club in the Maldives.

 

Bembem dribbling out her way on the pitch

 

There are junctures when life becomes hard and as players, you need to put your foot down and take a decision. Something similar happened with Bembem. She wasn’t in her best shape physically and decided to retire on 31st December, 2015. Bembem was persuaded by her teammates to take-back her resignation, giving a final shot at the South Asian Games to be held in India. At 35, Bembem was one of the older players plying her trade with youngsters and helping them with her huge experience.

Her recent performances show she is easily one of the best India has, even at 36. Bembem has played a major role in Eastern Sporting Union, a team which has participated in the Indian Women’s League and reached the Final.

Talking about her team ESU, Bembem only has good things to say. The versatile midfielder said, “My team (Eastern Sporting Union) is a community-based team from Imphal, Manipur. The team has a good balance of youth and experience, and we felt very good after winning the league (IWL).”

Rating the recently-concluded Indian Women’s League, Bembem decided to concentrate on the positives. “IWL is the starting step towards development of Indian Women’s football. By this league, a lot of players will get the much-needed exposure and mileage.”

 

Bembem Devi led Eastern Sporting Union to IWL Champions as Coach-player

 

Talking about the state of sports for Women in India, Bembem looks a little dejected. “I’ve applied thrice for the Arjuna Award in 2013, 2014 and 2015, have been nominated, but never won it. It is obviously a huge disappointment. Only 20% of the Arjuna Awards go to women and it hurts me sometimes (not winning it).”

There are certainly a lot of problems in Indian Women’s football. Taking her inputs on this context, Bembem chips in, “There are a lot of problems in Indian Women’s football like recognition, support from the crowd and sponsorships. There are more problems and the list keeps increasing.” Can the government and state associations play a role in empowering women’s football? Bembem, a lady of ideas, adds.

“The government should easily grant leave whenever required as a lot of players have jobs in government organizations. The players should also be recognized for their contributions. The associations should encourage more and more girls to take up football.”

Brimming with confidence even after a lot of hardships, Bembem has easily been the most charismatic character in Indian women’s football over the last two decades. You talk to her about Indian football and you see her eyes lighting up. Bembem adds, “The Indian women’s national team is one of the decent teams and we’ve a better ranking than our male counterparts (currently 54th). It is a good bunch of girls, experienced mixed with newcomers. My favorite position is midfield as from that position; you can enjoy playing the game and dominate.”

 

Bembem Devi has been the mainstay in the Indian Women's Football team for 20 years

 

On her post-retirement plans from the international scene, Bembem is clear in her thoughts. She stresses, “It is very emotional for me because I’ll be hanging my playing boots after 25 years on the national scene. I will, although, continue playing for the Manipur police team to keep myself fit. I also plan to get into coaching and start an academy to give back to the society. I don’t want anyone to go through what I’ve been (through).”

Looking at her personal sphere, Bembem is vibrant, yet grounded. We tried to know her choices on food and music, and the Indian captain added, “My favorite food is Manipuri cuisine and 'ghar ka khana.' I like all genres of music, but they all depend on my mood.” Talking about love and marriage, Bembem gives a smile and says, “I don’t have any plans on getting married right now. I would rather continue to focus on my first love, football (with a little more effort).” Keep away boys! Captain’s not in the mood.

Published: Thu Feb 23, 2017 11:32 AM IST

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