Dangmei Grace is 23. She scored nine goals in 18 matches for the Indian football team in 2019 and also helped her team Sethu FC win the Indian Women’s League this season. She scored a hat-trick in the semi-final and played a part in a couple of goals in the final. Last month, she was adjudged the All India Football Federation Emerging Woman Footballer of the Year. Seems apt.

Now let’s take a broader perspective. Grace made her national team debut in 2013. In the six years with the national team, she made 37 appearances and scored 14 goals. She also played in every edition of the IWL. Yet, she’s still an emerging player. Seems odd.

When asked about it, Grace laughs it off. There’s a sense of agreement that the award she got was a tad too delayed, but the feeling of being recognised overrides all other emotions. Rewards in women’s football in India are few and far between. For Grace, the actual accolade matters more than what it’s called.

“I hope this will make my parents happy. I hope there’s a smile on their faces when I go back home and my entire village is proud. They’ve all supported me in my journey,” Grace tells Scroll.in.

From Bishnupur to India U-14

It was there in Bishnupur, a small town in Manipur that Grace’s football journey began. Manipur breathes football and Grace was a true Manipuri in that sense. Although she never saw football as a profession, it was a great pastime.

“I used to play football with my brothers in my village. At that point, I was not serious about football. I never really felt it would be my profession,” Grace recalled.

However, her friend in school who was a bit more focussed on football and used to attend football coaching in the village convinced Grace to join her. A few months of regular practice helped Grace improve her game. Her speed and stamina saw her find a place in the Bishnupur U-14 team for the Manipur inter-district tournament. It was her first experience of competitive football.

Her qualities were there for all to see. In the same year in 2010, she was selected to represent Manipur in the U-14 national championships in Tamil Nadu. Grace who was always a presence on the field with her incessant running left a lasting impression.

She was then picked to represent India U-14 in a grassroot festival in Sri Lanka in the same year. Within months, Grace had gone from a football enthusiast to a national level talent.

“It was the first time I played for India. That’s when I thought maybe I could be a footballer,” Grace recalled.

From defence to attack

The turning point in her career, though, was yet to come. Simon Dangmei, her father who was a pastor in a local church, had identified her child’s potential in football. He came to know about Chaoba Devi, the first Indian woman to acquire an AFC A License, who’s now the assistant coach of the Indian national team. She was coaching in KRYPHSA club in Imphal at the time.

He visited the state capital and observed her training session for over a week. He was convinced that Chaoba Devi was the person to take Grace to greater heights in football.

“Grace’s father brought her to me in 2011 and said, ‘I’m handing my daughter to you. Make her an international player.’ Initially, she used to travel every day from Bishnupur to Imphal. The journey was taxing and she could barely sleep. I decided to enroll her in the KRYPHSA club in Imphal who took care of her accommodation,” Chaoba Devi told Scroll.in.

As days passed in Imphal. Chaoba Devi who had seen Grace’s talent during the nationals realised that her new pupil was stagnating. Her progress wasn’t as quick as her early days in football. She had a plan to change that.

“Grace used to play right back that time. Her speed and stamina were good so she wasn’t struggling, but she didn’t know what she was doing on the football field. She lacked game sense to play in that role,” the coach revealed.

Chaoba shifted her from right back to a striker. A drastic change. But she was convinced it was the right place for her to play.

“I wanted to make use of her speed, agility, her desire, and her aggression. Those are all the qualities you need to play as a striker. So, I shifted her to that position,” Chaoba reasoned.

Obviously, the change was a tough one for Grace but with her coach advocating it, she had little option but to abide by it.

“It was difficult at the start for me. I didn’t understand why she was making me play as a striker when I was a defender. But she told me that I didn’t have the right qualities to play in defence, so I adapted to life as a striker,” Grace revealed.

The Bishnupur native scored her first goal as a striker in the U-16 nationals in 2012. That goal was a major boost for her confidence. It gave her the belief that she could thrive in her new role.

The eye-opening India U-19 camp

A year later she was selected for the India U-19 camp. There she was introduced to many senior players like Oinam Bem Bem Devi and Sasmita Malik. The camp was an eye-opener for the young Manipuri girl who realised she had a lot more to do to just match her peers in the camp, let alone reach the level of the stars she met.

“After the U-19 camp, she became even more serious about her football. She had a dream to be like Bem Bem, Sasmita and that drove her on. Even during off days, she used to come to me and ask about how she should improve certain aspects of her game. Grace was always more hardworking than others, but after that camp, she became very focussed. She began chasing her dream,” Chaoba recalled.

In 2013, Grace was called up for the senior national team. She played for India in the 2014 Asian Games and 2016 South Asian games where she scored two goals against Sri Lanka. Later that year in SAFF Championship final, she top scored to help the Indian team clinch the title. She had arrived.

Her contributions to the Indian team continued, but 2019 is the year when she stepped up to an altogether different level.

Scoring 9 goals in 18 matches for the national team, Grace became an important player for the team. Having won the award her dream to be a big Indian player was partly accomplished.

“She still has a long way to go. There’s a lot left for her to achieve,” Chaoba Devi cautioned.

Speaking of her marked improvement this year, Grace credited the four-month camp and the several exposure tours conducted by the AIFF as the main reasons.

“The four-month camp with the national team helped me a lot. Also, the exposure tours by the AIFF were very important for me,” Grace said.

But as Chaoba Devi said there’s a lot more still left to achieve. Grace is already looking forward to the COTIF Cup in Spain and the AFC qualifiers. She wants to score more goals than she did this year. Not sure if she’s bothered about shunning the ‘emerging’ label, but if she continues this way, that will almost certainly follow.