Editor's Note: Every sport needs its superstars to thrive, and the Indian sporting ecosystem is no different. Despite a notoriously fumbling officialdom and a history of 'what-ifs', Indian sport has thrown its fair share of flagbearers who have led the way for this generation of promising athletes who unabashedly dream of global recognition and success. In Past Masters of Indian Sports, Firstpost's latest series, we look at such flagbearers, forgotten or otherwise, who have shown that being world-class in a largely mediocre environment is a pursuit worth celebrating.
One of the secrets to good writing is to use adjectives sparsely; after all, they tell more and show little. But what do you do when you get down to writing on someone like Oinam Bembem Devi. Strings of adjectives come to your mind as soon as you think about the footballer from Manipur - unparalleled, flag-bearer, legend. She was not just a great player but her place in the history of women's football in India is truly unmatched.
Over a career of 21 years in Indian colours, Bembem played in 85 matches for the national side and scored 32 goals but these numbers do very little justice to the talent, perseverance and impact of the midfield maestro. The senior national championship has long been the mainstay for women's football in India and hailing from the powerhouse Manipur, Bembem won 13 of them, including eight as captain.
Under her leadership, India captured three SAFF Cup titles (2010, 2012 and 2014) and two South Asian Games (SAG) gold medals (2010, 2016). She was the winner of the first All India Football Federation's (AIFF) Women's Player of the Year award in 2001 and again in 2013 when the federation restarted to hand out the awards after a gap of 11 years. That is a testimony to Bembem's consistency at the highest level despite India playing few matches in between and the domestic structure being far from supportive.
The biggest recognition for Bembem's remarkable contribution to her sport came in 2017 when she became the second women's footballer to win the Arjuna Award, the second-highest sporting award in India and in 2020, she has been conferred with Padma Shri, becoming the first women's footballer to earn the privilege.
"Bembem in women's football is an inspiration. She has got almost every possible award a player could get. We all look up to her and especially so in Manipur, her home state," said India striker Ngangom Bala Devi, the first women's footballer from India to sign a professional contract overseas.
Oinam Bembem Devi made her India debut at the age of 15 in 1995 and played till 2016. Image: Twitter/@IndianFootball
The awards have been a culmination of the footballer's diligent efforts during her journey of over three decades. The foundation of this journey was laid in the late 1980s when she fell in love with the sport after watching boys in her neighbourhood fight it out in a football field.
Her father wasn't very keen for her daughter to play the sport but all a young Bembem wanted was to play football. She would often wait for her father to leave for his office, to join the neighbourhood boys in the field. Getting caught meant some scolding, but it was worth it for the fun of playing the game. Things were not just restricted to sneaking out to play football but also participating in boy's tournaments.
"In my locality and from school, all my friends were boys. The local club from my place had a tournament coming up, so they asked me I would want to participate but I was like, 'How can I? I am a girl!' They said, 'We will change your name and you can participate as a boy,' and like that, I played in a few tournaments. In one of the tournaments, my name was Bobo and similarly, we used different names for different tournaments," recalled Bembem.
"The women's game is slower compared to men's football but because I use to play with the boys from the beginning, my muscles developed faster and my game was pretty quick," she added.
Though Bembem loved the game, she never thought of taking it up professionally, mainly because she was unaware of the scope of women's football in India. But things took a serious turn in 1991 as she was approached by a local club to play for them. The decision to play for YAWA Singjamei Leishangthem Lekai would prove to be the initial springboard that would propel her to the national team, dreams of which were sowed during her stadium experience of the senior women's national championship in Imphal in 1992.
"In 1991, I was approached by a local girl's club to play for them, at that time I didn't know there were teams just for girls and tournaments. After playing for them, I was asked to come for Manipur's Under-13 team's trial. I got through the trial successfully, but my dad didn't want me to play. He asked me to concentrate on studies instead, but I was adamant. I said I want to do both studies and playing football together," said Bembem.
"In 1992, Senior Women's National Football Championship was held in Manipur. Some of my neighbouring boys told me why don't you go to watch the women's tournament. It was the final that day and it was an inspiration for me. I realised that women's teams are playing at the state level, so I decided I also want to represent the state team, play at the highest level."
" Indian Football Team (@IndianFootball) August 29, 2017
Bembem started working hard to get to her dreams. She joined Social Union Nascent (SUN) Club in 1993 from YAWA and graduated to the senior state team from playing sub-junior tournaments for Manipur U-13 side. Her progress through club and state football soon led to her earning a national call-up without playing for junior teams. She eventually made her national debut just at the age of 15 in 1995 against Guam.
"The senior trials were very tough. At that time we had many established players from Manipur, Bengal and Kerala. So, to get selected was a tough challenge but I worked very hard for it, took guidance from my seniors about diet and training. I was very proud that on my debut I found a place in the starting XI. My first jersey number was 8. It was a memorable day and from there I decided to work even harder," she said.
The subsequent journey brought more milestones for Bembem as she kept making India proud on the pitch with her nimble footwork and visionary passing.
"Bembem is a top finisher and goalscorer. She is a very good passer and distributes to both sides and I would find it very easy playing with her. I knew Bembem eche (a term for elder sister in Manipuri) would get the ball to me in the right position to score and we had some great matches together," said Bala, explaining Bembem's style of play.
Her commanding performance from the midfield against Japan in the 1997 AFC Women's Championship, a match which India lost by a margin of one goal, is often sighted as a major highlight of her career but as Bembem speaks about her career, she hails the match against Chines Taipei in 2001 as one of her best performances, something she believes led her to the first AIFF Women's Player of the Year award the same year. She would later go on to take over the reins of the Indian team in 2003.
"Till 2001, we had the senior players in the side - Kumari Devi, Binashori Devi, Maria Rebello. So, till then, I didn't get the chance to lead the team, the focus was on performance. From them, I learned about leading a team and the basics of captaining because I knew I would be the most experienced in the side once those players hang up their boots. The period from 1995-2001 was a learning phase for me," she said.
"Actually, there could have been an opportunity to lead the team or be a vice-captain in 2001 but then there was some controversy and I lost the opportunity. I decided that I don't play to be the captain, I play for the country, so the focus should be on the performance. The same year we played against Chinese Taipei. While we lost 1-2, our performance in the match was very good including mine.
"The same year, FIFA started the award for women's footballer of the year. AIFF also followed FIFA and started their own award. On the basis of that Chinese Taipei match, I was given that award in the year of its inception. That was a memorable occasion. That award was a motivation to do much better on the international stage and eventually in 2003, I was given the responsibility to captain the national side."
Seniors moving out of the team meant Bembem not only had to be the leader on the pitch but off it as well. A new crop of players was getting into the side from across the country. The magical midfielder took the young players under her wings and embarked on a highly successful journey as the skipper of the side. She held India's captaincy from 2003 to 2016 and led India to victory in five international championships.
"I have known her since 2002 when I was first selected in the state team for Manipur and we have been very close since 2005 when I was selected first for the senior national team. She has guided me throughout my career," said Bala.
"She was a very hard-working player throughout her career. Especially being a senior she would guide the juniors. Her playing and leadership values go hand in hand."
In 2014, she created another landmark when she became the first woman footballer from India to play overseas after signing for New Radiant SC of Maldives. She guided the team to two consecutive league titles.
"Maldives is not a very high ranking team in South Asia but their commitment towards women's football was commendable. They got players from Germany in the Maldives league, and also from Pakistan and Sri Lanka. There used to be a huge turnout for the matches and that was nice to see. Players there have day jobs, so they only practice in the evening or at night. It was an experience to see how hard they work to play," said Bembem.
"The first year was somewhat boring as I used to have a lot of free time but in 2015, Bala Devi and Ashalata Devi also joined me. It was more enjoyable then and our football was also much better as I had good co-ordination with the Indian players."
Eventually in 2015, after completing two decades at the highest level, Bembem decided to call it a day but her plans were soon to be overturned as her colleagues, coaches, and federation requested her for a final hurrah with India preparing for the 2016 SAG. In the end, it proved to be an excellent decision as she would go on to clinch the title with India beating Nepal in the final. What made the final even more special was Bembem's mother watching her for the first time on television.
"I started playing in late 1995, so by 2015 I had completed two decades and I decided to retire. I even made the announcement on 31 December but the next day I started receiving calls from AIFF, coaches, players asking me to reconsider my decision as the 2016 South Asian Games was going to be held in India. When I went back to join the Indian camp, the teammates were very emotional, they were like, 'You can't leave us.' The federation also wanted me, so it was a very emotional time and I was very happy as well," she said.
"It was very difficult to bid farewell to the sport I love so much. I had a lot of pain in the tendon before the final, so I requested my physio to treat me somehow so that I could play and he did very well. It was also the day my mother watched me play football on TV for the first time. I played for 20 years and 2-3 national games were held in Manipur but she never watched me play, so that was very special."
Retired life for Bembem has largely been about getting the future batch of Indian footballers ready. She won the inaugural Indian Women's League (IWL) title as a player-cum-manager of Eastern Sporting Union in 2017 and was later assigned as the assistant coach for the India U-16 women's team for the AFC U-16 Women's Championship 2019 qualifiers in Mongolia. In 2019, she also coached Manipur Police Sports Club in IWL. She currently holds the AFC-B licence and is aiming for an A license as she plans for a long haul as a football coach.
"In 2015, I cleared B license but since then I was playing and couldn't clear the A license. Now the aim is to acquire the A license. Also, AIFF gave me the opportunity to coach U-15, U-16 teams in 2018, so I want to take up coaching in future and share my experience with the players," the 40-year-old said.
However, the biggest development in the four years since she retired from international football has been the long-awaited recognition for her contribution to the field of sports from the government. After failing, on three occasions, she finally won the Arjuna Award in 2017 before being conferred with Padma Shri earlier this year. As a big advocate of women making their own life decisions, Bembem hopes the awards would inspire more and more young girls to take up the sports and become the master of their own life.
"We lose some good upcoming footballers as they get married very early. We need to change this mindset. Marriage is important, but women players should get an opportunity to become self-dependent because players who do well also get jobs now. We will have to change the culture a lot, there are a lot of opportunities now. There's Indian Women's League (IWL) now at the national level. We have to give them the message that women footballers can also win the Arjuna Award, Padma Shri, and so on. Bala is now playing in Europe. There's a lot to achieve in women's football," she remarked.
And to provide the much-needed impetus to the sport, Bembem is also planning to start a training academy for women footballers in Imphal. She served Indian football excellently for over two decades as a player but that was just the first half of her love affair with the sport. The second half is now underway with Bembem donning the coaching hat, and it only means better days for Indian women's football.