"Families should let girls play": the great Indian Bembem Devi

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Segway-like vehicles were also used by the police to keep an eye on the large crowd on Marina Beach.

The outbreak of a sudden, short-lived roar from Bangalore Football Stadium startles me as I enter the arena. After about five minutes in the Indian Women's League final, it looked for a moment that KRYPHSA would win 3: 3 against Gokulam Kerala in the Indian Women's League (IWL) final on Friday. But the ball doesn't find the net. Hence the short-lived roar.

Gokulam Kerala held onto his lead from a goal and was crowned champion of the fourth edition of the IWL. The winners wallowed in the midst of the Chenda beats and whistles and the applause of over 1,000 spectators. Photojournalist Covey captured the colorful celebration that preceded the award ceremony, where the winners took home a £ 5 check along with the trophy and other awards.

Among those who awarded the prizes was Oinam Bembem Devi, one of the best women soccer players India has produced. In January she was the first female football player to be awarded the Padma Shri.

Bembem, 39, retired from international football in 2016 and is pursuing a career as a coach. When she witnessed the celebration of the players and the recognition they received on Friday, she might have wanted to play in that era. This is not to say that women's football in India is now in the pink of health. But it is at least less dark than in Bembem times, when there were not even shirt sponsors. Opportunities were also rare. She cut her hair short and gave herself young names like Bobo or Amko so that she could play in the local clubs in Imphal, her hometown.

Bembem shares her thoughts on Indian football with MetroPlus.

Excerpts: –

What has changed since you started out as a player in women's football in India?

Many things have changed. For example, we didn't have a brand that sponsored our jerseys. We would get our own practice sets. We only had practice sets from the end of the 2000s. Nike came on board as a sponsor. We got a good daily allowance. We traveled by plane. Before we drove on buses and trains. Now things have improved, and so has the performance of the teams.

Indian President Ram Nath Kovind presents Bembem with the Arjuna Award.

Indian President Ram Nath Kovind presents Bembem with the Arjuna Award.

| Photo credit:
RV Moorthy

Has it become easier for women to choose football as a career in India?

Yes. You now have the Indian Women's League, which has many sponsors. And if you are good enough, you will receive financial support. If you do well in the tournament, you will be noticed. If you continue to work hard afterwards, you can have a good career as a female soccer player.

Speaking of which, Ngangom Bala Devi, who happens to be from your state (Manipur), recently became the first Indian soccer professional when she signed an 18-month contract with Rangers FC, Scotland.

Yes, I'm happy for you. It is a great opportunity. She has also opened the gates for future players from India to play abroad. I hope she is fine.

Manipur produces many soccer players from India. What is it doing right?

The other northeastern states like Meghalaya and Assam are also trying to create good talent. However, Manipur has a good basic program. And we regularly organize tournaments. So there are more ways for players to perform and look for new talent.

Why do you think IWL is a good launchpad?

Players of all ages can play in the Indian Women's League … under 17, under 19 … This makes it easier for national scouts to select and improve the best young players from the tournament. The U19 players performed well this year.

In your game days, you went abroad a few times to exercise. What have you learned from these trips?

I was in Germany for 15 days. I trained under various coaches and learned a lot … If you go on these trips abroad and play friendly games against higher-ranking opponents, your game will improve and your confidence will increase.

What are the challenges of women's football in India?

I don't think families in our villages want girls to do sports. However, now you see that girls in India can do anything – I managed to get Padma Shri. Families should change their attitude that girls cannot do well in sports. You should be allowed to do what you want. Players should continue to work hard to improve Indian football.

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