Travelling to Imphal by road can throw light upon the myriad challenges faced by a Manipuri athlete to achieve sporting success. Something as basic as attending a national camp can be an arduous task stretching over several days of uncertainty, that much more difficult if you are a woman. Add to that, constant economic blockades, strikes, militant attacks, threats from rebel groups, family commitments and poor connectivity can spell doom for an athlete.

One unexpected incident could put to dust, a lifetime worth of meticulous preparation. Oinam Bembem Devi has not only taken matters head on, but has also come out with flying colours as she puts to end, a long illustrious 20-year-long career as a fiery midfielder of the Indian women’s football team. While hers may not be the first name that comes to the mind of average urban sports fan, her struggles shine bright amidst the treasure trove of Indian sports stories.

We were graciously hosted by Bembem at her home at Imphal. The serenity with which she received us was in contrast to the chaos that had formed the backdrop of her footballing journey. Speaking with utmost warmth and humility, Bembem narrated bits from her long exciting career, peppering it with reflective opinions and hopes for the future.

Recalling her days as a ten year old back in 1989, Bembem says that the “love for football came naturally” to her as she began playing the sport regularly with boys. She started her journey in 1991 when she was selected to represent the Manipur U-13 team at a sub-junior tournament.

Her performances in the tournament did not go unnoticed, as she got a chance to join Yawa Singjamei Leishangthem Lekai club and later move on to join SUN Club in 1993 under the guidance of legendary player L. Ramoni Devi. It was not long before she began to create an impact at the national level, as Bembem became a starter for the Manipur women’s football team at the tender age of 13 in 1993.

As an under-17 player (No.8) for the Manipur team. (Source: e-pao)

According to Bembem, her father was initially reluctant about her sporting pursuits but after she got selected for the Indian team in 1995, she began to receive his support. She describes the early years as a “struggle” as she found it extremely hard to consistently get selected for the team. She made her international debut against Guam in the Asian Womens Championships at 15, the start of a 20-year long career.

It was at the 1996 Asian Games that Bembem announced her arrival at the national stage. Before the 1997 AFC Cup in China, the Indian team was sent to Germany for a month-long camp, where 22 women were trained by German coaches and played against German opposition. The camp proved vital as the team came 5th in the tournament. This, Bembem says, “proved to be a milestone” in her career. She began to cement her place in the team from 2003 and captained the Indian contingent at the AFC qualifying competition, held in Thailand the same year.

As the captain of the Indian team, she led the side to victory at five international tournaments including the 11th South Asian Games held in Bangladesh in 2010 and the 2012 SAFF Womens Championship held in Sri Lanka. For all her achievements, Bembem has been awarded the AIFF Woman Footballer of the Year two times in 2001 and 2013.

Recalling her own career, she says that the best moment was in 2001 when she got the AIFF Player of the Year award. Her best sporting moment was in one of the Olympic Pre- Qualifier games at Bangladesh in 2010, where she unleashed a left footed curler from a free kick and scored an important goal. She exclaims proudly, “even a male keeper would not have caught that”!

She believes that one major hindrance to the growth of her career was that Imphal is very remote and she found it extremely hard to travel to participate in tournaments. As mentioned earlier, this has always threatened to further marginalize the Manipuri athletes as the geographical remoteness add to the constraints brought by racism and language. This is where, she believes, that the attitude of the state bodies becomes crucial. For example, one of the critical things was when the AIFF decided to provide flight tickets for her short travels out of Imphal, thus enabling her to participate in tournaments with more ease.

Another form of crucial state support that a sportsperson would need is an additional source of livelihood. Bembem initially had a lot of financial problems but she eventually bagged a job with the Manipur police. Though she is unhappy with the lack of growth with the Police, it has provided a good back-up for her career.

Bembem also pursued a short club career outside India in the Maldives and considers that to be a very memorable experience. In June 2014, the Maldivian Football club New Radiant, announced the signing of Bembem and another Indian Lako Phuti.

Bembem Devi made her debut as a late first half substitute, and provided two assists in a 4-0 win. She ended up as the tournament’s top scorer with 6 goals in three matches. She also provided four assists and was awarded the Player of The Tournament for her excellent performances. She was a part of the squad again in 2015 where she was to score eight goals and provide 11 assists, helping the club to another title. This time she was accompanied by her fellow Manipuris Bala Devi and Ashalata Devi.

Bembem poses with the first IWL trophy along with the Eastern Sporting Union team (Source: AIFF Media)

Speaking about the Maldivian experience, Bembem counts it among one of the best in her career. Though she felt a bit lonely the first time, she enjoyed the second stint better when her compatriots Bala and Ashalata joined her, as she had company to visit the exquisite Maldivian beaches. She hopes that Indian players receive more such opportunities. Not only did she enjoy the football, but she was also happy that she had “company to visit the exquisite Maldivian beaches and do a lot of sight-seeing.”

Bembem decided to hang up her boots on 31st December, 2015. Destiny, however, had other plans as she ended up being convinced by AIFF to represent India one last time at the South Asian Games.

It would turn out to be a memorable twist of fate, as she was to receive a fantastic farewell organized for her service to Indian football. Participating after a gap of four years, Bembem played spectacular football to lead the country to a gold medal.

She fondly recollects how almost twenty thousand fans thronged the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium to cheer for her team during the final. Bembem says that it was a bittersweet occasion beating the rivals Nepal 4-0 in the final but soon realizing she would not don Indian jersey again. It was also the first time ever that she managed to convince her mother to watch her live at a stadium, making it special for both.

Retirement was to further elude Bembem as she was convinced by officials again to play the inaugural season of the Indian Women’s League. On loan from the Manipur police, she was player-manager of Eastern Sporting Union club. It was her first experience managing a club which she claims to have thoroughly enjoyed. Much like most of her playing career, she again led her side to victory and ended her career on a high.

Bembem in action for the Indian National Team against Bahrain (Source: Reuters)

At the League, Bembem felt that she had a great opportunity to understand the technicalities of managing a football team. She opines that it was good to see AIFF had at least started it and feels it would be the beginning of greater things to come. She claims she even got a “special ticket” for the same!

Though a bit upset about the lack of teams and sponsors, she hopes for bigger tournament in the following years with home and away games, thus giving rise to a larger chunk of players.

She was amazed to see the quality of the younger players, especially the Under-19s, and happy that they were able to come to the forefront. She picks 12 year old Senorita as her favourite among the younger group, as she saw a bit of herself as a young player at the Indian camp at 1997. Taking special interest in the player, Bembem discussed with her coach Kalpana about specifically nurturing her talent and claims that IWL has produced a future great.

Bembem has a lot of regard for the continuous support of her family and says that every girl should realize that it is tough to build a career in sports without support. She gives the example of a her best friend and fellow player of the Indian Team by the name of Sukanya (from Tamil Nadu) who had to quit the game after she was forced to marry by her family.

Bembem and Bala Devi lifting the 2016 South Asian Games trophy (Courtesy: AFP)

Bembem opines that one of the major reasons for the development of the game in Manipur is that the foundation systems are very good. There are several opportunities across age categories for players to participate and show case their skills, thus providing a big pool of players. In fact she believes that it is tougher to get selected for the Manipur team rather than the Indian team. On the international scene, Bembem stresses the need to have a long term vision, play many friendly games with other countries.

Marta Viera Da Silva from Brazil and Lionel Messi are among her favourite football players. Among the new crop of Indian football players, she considers current Indian captain Bala Devi to be the best player. Bembem still keenly follows Indian football and keeps herself updated. Having transformed into a keen fan from a player, she was slightly disappointed about the performance at the 2016 SAFF games but glad that they retained the title that she had twice helped the team to win. She hopes that the team can perform better at the ongoing Asian Cup qualifiers in North Korea.

Personally, she refuses to entertain talks about marriage as she claims football is her only love. She plans to open a football school soon and nurture young players from Manipur. She plays recreationally and does some coaching in her spare time. Though a bit disappointed that laurels and recognition like the Arjuna award have not come her way, Bembem convinces herself that she has done enough by devoting 20 years of her life single-mindedly to Indian football.

She has received her B License Coaching certificate from FIFA and will be applying for an A license soon. She feels that though she may not play in any World Cup, she would definitely want to be the coach for a World Cup squad. For Bembem, age is just a number and so, she continues to dream the dream of a young ambitious girl.

The author, Shreyas Rao, had originally written a version of this for Inspirational women in Asia: making a difference in physical education, sport and dance” published by the International Association of Physical Education & Sport for Girls and Women (IAPESGW) .