Photo: Shail Desai
Photo: Shail Desai

Bembem Devi: Indian football’s unsung legend

Despite surviving against all odds to reach the pinnacle of women's football in India, the midfield dynamo from Manipur remains a largely unknown entity

“Thakna se koi marta nahi hai (fatigue doesn’t kill anyone)," Oinam Bembem Devi, 36, says, as her voice trails off.

That sums up the career of a footballer who has represented India for 21 years, with 85 caps and 32 goals to her credit, despite little recognition coming her way. The numbers may seem skewed given the time-frame, but it reflects the deplorable state of women’s football in the country.

That never stopped her from putting on a show each time she put on her boots, inspiring a generation of female footballers along the way. In February, her remarkable journey came to a fitting end, as she walked off the turf at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Shillong, signing off with yet another gold medal after India beat Nepal in the final of the South Asian Games (SAG).

After driving down the Airport Road in Imphal, it takes 20 minutes to break the ice as we made our way past the office of the United Pioneers Club. It’s where Bembem toddled her way into the world of football in 1988.

“The boys asked me to play with them. I had short hair then, so it was easy. They gave me the name ‘Bobo’, which is a typical boy’s name in Manipur. A lot of people in the crowd suspected I was a girl, but of course, no one could prove it!" she says, chuckling.

“We won that tournament. In fact, the trophy is still at my brother’s house," she adds.

That game was a one-off for Bembem, who was happy to play in the courtyard of the family house in Pishumthong Oinam Leikai with her brothers. At the time, she was oblivious to the appeal that the sport had in Manipur, which has been the cradle of Indian football for years—this, despite a cousin, N. Ronibala, who was already playing for the national team.

Until Class V, she featured among the top three in her class at UJB School. As a result, her father, Oinam Nageshor Singh, was against her taking to the game, despite being a football fanatic himself.

Little did he know that at school, Bembem was slowly making her mark in another field besides academics. So, while she participated in 100m sprints with the girls, the boys of the Blue House could never do without their key player in football. Coming back with bruises after a hard game, though, did not go down well at home.

“My mother has a hypertension problem and would freak out when she saw me hurt. So, I would wear full pants to hide my injuries. On the other hand, my father insisted I focus on studies and I often got beaten and had to be rescued by my brothers," she says.

After those early days, Bembem got into the practice of always finding a way out. Growing up in a joint family, her siblings were her support. Bembem would sneak out of the house when her father wasn’t around, pick up her kit bag from where she had stashed it and then meet her didi who would be waiting with her bicycle—a routine timed to perfection—before taking on the grind on the grass.

It was only in 1991 when she stood in the stands watching the national women’s championship in Imphal that she realized there were so many women playing football in India. That tournament played a major role in her life; she felt that if she worked hard, she too could make it.

It didn’t take long for her to get cracking. She signed with a local club, Yawa, in 1991, and the same year made the cut on the Manipur side that travelled to Rohtak to play the sub-junior nationals.

“It was my first tournament outside Manipur," she recalls.

“I didn’t get much game time—just about 30 minutes off the bench. But I knew what I had to do and worked towards it. Two years later, I was a regular on the senior Manipur side," she adds. By this time, her father understood what his girl could do, so the rules were bent—as long as she went to school, she could chase football.

Tournaments for her new side, Sun Club, in addition to the state team, meant missing classes and examinations at her new school, Kha Imphal High School. The teachers, though, backed her talent, conducting separate classes for her if she had difficulties, which was probably unheard of at that time and even helped her pass Class VII without actually appearing for the examination.

“They knew how disciplined and focused I was on football, so they were happy with what I was achieving. Later on, they watched my games, read articles about me and even stopped me on the road when they saw me to say how proud they were. In fact, they even questioned my decision to retire. I still meet some of my teachers and thank them for all that they have done for me," Bembem says, smiling.

There were other struggles alongside, even for something as basic as a kit, and a tracksuit handed down became a prized possession. There was little support from the state association and players had to even fund their own travel.

“I remember this one time I had asked my mother for money and when she refused, I hurled a stone at her from a distance in frustration. My mother was helpless—if she didn’t have money, how would she give me any? This was the case most times before I got a job," Bembem says.

On field though, nothing could stop her. Armed with the determination to excel and a knack for picking up any skill, it mattered little whom she played with or for. She made the central midfield position her own and didn’t let her 5’2", diminutive frame hinder her progress, dominating the opposition with nippy runs while halting their progress with a ruthless resolve.

The work ethic paid off, and at the age of 15 in 1995, she stepped out in the Indian jersey for the senior side. The selection spoke volumes of the ability of a player who had never turned out for any of the junior India teams. So, while other teens were sitting pretty in their first phanek, the traditional Manipuri dress, Bembem was battling it out on the field in a foreign land.

“It was in Malaysia at the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) championship that I made my debut, and it was really encouraging to find a place in the starting XI. Some said that I was picked as part of the coach’s quota. It hardly bothered me because starting games had me realize that my coaches had faith in me," she says.

Back home, Bembem found the perfect mentor in S. Ekendra Singh, who was her coach at Sun Club and continues to guide her even today. Her father, though, continued to watch her play from a silent corner, whenever she was playing in Manipur.

“He was still a little miffed since I didn’t chase an education. He told me to clear my 10th standard and that he would help me get a job since he was well connected. The day I got my results, he passed away," she says.

In 1998, Bembem was recruited as a constable with the Manipur Police. She is still employed with them despite just one promotion so far against all her achievements. It has been a constant bother, but she has never let things off the pitch affect her game.

In the national team, Bembem grew under the likes of senior players such as Kumari Devi, Khambi Devi, Binashori Devi, Bentla D’Coth, Maria Rebello, Chaoba Devi and Lokeshwari Devi, grasping things at play while also trying to understand other aspects such as diet, rest and recovery. What she couldn’t learn from them, she soaked in through books—a habit she had perfected at school.

By 2001, she was the senior-most player on the national side, and two years later, she was handed the captain’s armband at the AFC championship qualifiers in Thailand. She went on to lead the national side on six other occasions.

“It was an incredible feeling, simply because I had come so far. After the coach, all the responsibility falls on the captain, so it was a big deal," she says.

The euphoria didn’t last long though. Bembem found the team disjointed, with a lack of communication—the majority were from Manipur, with a number of players from other parts of the country. Bembem rolled up her sleeves and took charge; girls from Tamil Nadu were schooled in the basics of Hindi, the Biharis in Manipuri and the team on the whole in the language of football.

“I just wanted them all to hang out together, so that it would translate to a good bond on field. There’s this girl Suganya from Bihar, who knows more Manipuri than Hindi today. In fact, when she came home, she conversed with my mother with ease," she says.

With greater games to play, Bembem would surely have operated at a different level. Each year, there were just the nationals to look forward to—a tournament she won 14 times—and a few club matches and independent tournaments that came her way. Then, there was the erratic National Games, in which she won three gold medals. In addition, she was a regular feature at qualifying tournaments for the World Cup and Olympics, in addition to AFC tournaments and the Asian Games.

The highlight of her career was three SAFF Cup titles (2010, 2012, 2014) and two SAG wins (2010, 2016). Her performances were good enough to earn her the All India Football Federation’s Women’s Player of the Year in 2001 and 2013. (There was no award handed out to female footballers in between).

In 2014, she became the first female footballer from India to play abroad while turning out for New Radiant Sports Club in the Maldives. Not only did she help them to the league title, but she also finished as top scorer in the league, earning the player of the tournament award. The following year, she paved the way for Ngangom Bala Devi and Loitongbam Ashalata Devi, and won the league once again.

“It was a relief to have them—it would get quite lonely as their training sessions were in the evening and I had the entire day to kill. It’s great to see how the Maldives is investing in women’s football—they bring in players from around the world to help their own players grow and don’t think twice when it comes to spending money," she says.

But for all her achievements, she has been denied the Arjuna Award on three occasions—something she cannot comprehend. For the record, just one woman, Shanti Mullick in 1983, has been awarded the Arjuna Award for football.

“We play the same tournaments that the men do—they have just the Nehru Cup that we don’t. So, why not me? I think it’s a clear bias. Shouldn’t they just look at performances on the field and decide for themselves?" she asks.

After more than two decades of playing for the country, Bembem decided to retire on 31 December 2015. She was almost bullied into withdrawing her decision by teammates, considering the 2016 edition of the South Asian Games was being hosted by India. So, at 35, she decided to have one final go.

India managed two goalless draws (against the Maldives and Nepal) and thrashed Bangladesh (5-1) and Sri Lanka (5-0) in the league stages to qualify for the final. Once again, they took on Nepal and the team rose to the occasion to hammer the opposition 4-0 and hand Bembem a fitting farewell.

“The crowd in Shillong really supported us, then the girls made it special for me. It would have been difficult had we lost that game. One of the girls said, ‘Didi, aap chodega toh hum ab kaise khelega (how will we play now that you have quit)?’ I broke down after that and all those memories of first stepping out for the Indian national side came rushing back to me," Bembem says.

Retirement from the top flight usually leads to a focus on personal agendas, but Bembem says she still has no plans on getting married and would rather focus on her first love.

While the Indian jersey has been signed and given away, the football has hardly stopped. At the recently concluded I-League qualifiers in Odisha, Bembem turned out for Eastern Sporting Union, which made the cut for the main tournament that will be played sometime next year. She has also been selfless in helping a whole bunch of players from Manipur land contacts with other teams playing the qualifiers.

“If only they had organized this tournament a decade ago, it would have helped so many footballers. Just the opportunity to play more games would have made the difference," she says.

Then, there are the coaching badges to be earned to begin a new journey as coach, which she has started by taking charge of United Pioneers Club, which plays in the second division of the Manipur State League. The hurt of being ignored in the past remains, but like before, she has chosen to brush it off and continue working for the sport.

The next target is to start a football school to help another generation live the dream—with or without help from the state or the association. Rest assured, it’s the start of another tireless journey for this unsung legend of Indian football.

Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based writer.

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