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At 33, India's No 1 women's footballer yearns for recognition

January 03, 2014 08:07 IST

At 33, India's No 1 women's footballer yearns for recognition

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Laxmi Negi

Time froze for Oinam Bembem Devi when she received a phone call from the AIFF media manager breaking the news of her being named the All India Football Federation’s ‘Women’s Player of the Year’.

-Sunil Chhetri is AIFF Player of the Year

“It was the same numbing feeling as it was 12 years ago,” said the 33 year-old, who won the coveted award in 2001, when it was instituted.

The AIFF suspended the award after that, and when it reinstated this year, Bembem was the winner again.

There was a sense of pride in her voice as she declared, “The federation did take into account my hard work and sacrifices, as I have put football first in my life.”

Her home and work place at Manipur Police, in Imphal, is bubbling with festivities as congratulatory messages pour in from football fans around the country.

Women footballers in India are not as celebrated as their male counterparts. They do not have an I-League to bank upon and none of the corporate houses consider them worthy of sponsorship or endorsements.

In such a bleak scenario, someone like Bembem Devi has stayed competitive for 18 long years.


Photographs: Aiff Media

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Having been born and brought up in Manipur, football came naturally to her. The popularity of the sport in the region can be gauged by the sheer number of men’s players it produces, many of whom ply their trade in the I-League.

As a kid the stocky midfielder played in boys’ tournaments, as staying away form the field and waiting for girls’ tournament wasn’t on her list of priorities.

Her cousin, who played for the local Yana Club, coaxed Bembem to start playing for a girls’ team at the age of 13 and since then there was no turning back. The rest, as they say, is history.

Bembem joined Sun Club in 1993, and in 1995, at the tender age of 15, found a place in the senior national team, going on to make her international debut against Guam in the Asian Women's Championships.

The 1996 Asian Games in Bangkok was the turning point in her career. Since then she had scored over 50 international goals.


Photographs: Aiff Media

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Though she is the senior-most player in the Indian squad, she is way ahead of those even ten years younger than her when it comes to fitness.

The Indian women’s team is ranked way down at 49, but Bembem feels it can rise with more tournaments and foreign exposure.

“We can go much higher if we get the fecilities. There is a need of three to four tournaments a year. There should also be frequent camps for the girls,” she said.

Ask her about the backing she receives from her employers, Manipur Police, and she is hesistant to elaborate.

“I do not tell anyone my post in the Police department beause I feel shy. I do not have any influence to push my case for promotion, but I hope this time, after this latest award, my plea will not fall in deaf ears,” she said.

Indeed, Bembem’s plight is like that of many lesser-known sportspersons in the country. She was employed with the Manipur Police in 2000 and since then received just one promotion, which came four years ago.

Her disappointment does not end there. Despite being the country’s leading women’s footballer she hasn’t been recommended for the prestigious Arjuna award.

With the Asian Games coming up, will 2014 see a change in her fortunes? Having been named footballer of the year a second time she is hopeful of the AIFF recommending her for the Arjuna next year.

She will be 34 next year, and knowing well enough retirement is around the corner, she has already set sights on coaching.

“Coaching came naturally to me. A lot of young girls look up to me. It’s time I show them a few tricks from my bag,” she informs, adding she has already cleared the AFC C licence course and B licence practical.

For one who wants to give as much back what she got from the game, it’s time for recognition.


Photographs: Aiff Media

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