Indian football team striker Bala Devi was already a path-breaker when she signed a professional contract for Scottish side Rangers in January. But away from home in a much higher level of competition, her professional career was well and truly beginning.
The Manipuri is no youngster at 30. She also boasts of a staggering scoring record for India having netted 52 times in 58 games. But this jump to Rangers, a powerhouse in Scottish football was going to test one of India’s greatest.
It was evident fairly early into her transfer to Rangers that the move was a footballing one and not a marketing gimmick to excite the football community of a country that is desperate to see one of their own make it big in Europe.
Bala Devi was given the No 10 jersey, usually reserved for the team’s most prized attacking talent. But more importantly, coach Grégory Vignal threw her straight into the action in their first official game of the season against Hearts in the Scottish Premier League.
“There was a lot of attention around my debut and I was overjoyed that it came in the first official match of the season,” Bala Devi told Scroll.in from Scotland.
Playing just behind the striker, Bala Devi played 80 minutes and assisted Rangers’ first goal. Combining well with striker Megan Bell, the Indian’s deft touch slipped the ball to her teammate clean through on goal to allow her to score.
“It was a huge confidence booster for me,” Bala Devi said about her performance on her debut.
“To be playing your debut match for such a big club and making an assist early on in the game was huge. However, this has not changed the way I look at every match. I feel every match is as important as the previous or the next,” she added.
Bala Devi was largely involved in Rangers’ next two matches before the league was suspended due to coronavirus. But those matches have provided her with enough clues to understand where she needs to improve on.
“Here I’m playing both as a striker and attacking midfielder. I’m getting used to both positions. I don’t have a fixed position that I need to play throughout the season,” Bala Devi said.
“But the European game demands that you’re more physical, play quick passes and work a lot off the ball. Those are the areas I’m working on with the help of my coach,” she added.
Getting to terms with the new surroundings and the local accent was challenges she had to overcome at the beginning but it’s starting to fall in place for the Manipuri forward.
“We are all from different parts of the world and getting used to understanding each other’s accents. It is getting a little easier over time,” she said.
“Since we used to spend most of our time together training we have started becoming close friends. I even travel to and from practice with my flatmates,” she added.
Bala Devi has caught few glimpses of Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard at the training ground as he coached the men’s team but is yet to get an opportunity to meet him. It’s one thing on her wish list she hopes to accomplish soon.
On the training pitch, Bala Devi is starting to like her new way of training.
“Training is of very high intensity and we have a set plan, and are trying to perfect it,” she said.
“The facilities are also outstanding and at par with the best in the world. Sometimes we have two sessions in a day. We also spend a lot of time together – eating and relaxing together. There is a good unity in the team,” added the Indian striker.
The Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdown has meant that football has come to a halt in Scotland and with the travel restrictions imposed by the Indian government, it’s impossible for her to return home.
In her few ventures out in Glasgow before the lockdown was enforced, Bala Devi has been able to find some Indian restaurants in her locality that have helped her satisfy her Indian taste buds. But her craving for football remains unattended.
“It can get boring being away from football just like it is for everyone being away from their work. But I am following the exercise charts given by the club and keeping fit within my house so that I’m ready when the matches start again,” said Bala Devi, who evidently can’t wait to get back on that football pitch again.