As of 2017, 24 Indian footballers have been awarded the prestigious Arjuna, given to athletes or sportspersons with outstanding achievements in the field of sport.
There are some legendary names here. The list starts in 1961 with none other than PK Banerjee himself becoming the first footballer to be conferred with the Arjuna Award. Tulsidas Balaram and Chuni Goswami followed PK’s footsteps in 1962 and 1963.
Sunil Chhetri, awarded in 2011, became the second last Indian footballer to receive the award; Subrata Paul the latest one to get the recognition in 2016.
The glaring point here? Only one of the 24 awardees is female. Shanti Mullick won the Arjuna in 1983.
As part of the Goal for India project, The Field had profiled Bembem Devi and her storied career. In fact of all the Arjuna awardees, only Chhetri and Gurdev Singh Gill have more appearances than Bembem’s 85 national caps.
There were calls from footballers such as Juhi Shah and Jules Alberto, administrators Shaji Prabhakaran and others in the Indian football community who think that this should be Bembem’s year to receive the award.
Ex-Arjuna awardee Ashwini Nachappa also lent her voice to the movement, stating that the way that awards were doled out, needed to be revisited.
Twenty years of service later, the size and scale of Bembem Devi’s contribution to women’s football in the country cannot be understated. At a time when the idea of organised women’s football was still nascent in India, Bembem broke new barriers for women related to the sport, and her legacy till date remains one of a path-breaker and a trend-setter.