On February 15, 2016, Shillong’s JLN stadium was jam-packed with 22000 football fans who had come to watch India play Nepal in the final of the women’s football at the 12th South Asian Games. Before the whistle commenced the match, a legendary player, captaining India for the last time, was felicitated in front of an appreciative crowd. The Indian women’s national team went on to defeat Nepal 4-0 to clinch the gold medal at the 12th South Asian Games.
For Oinam Bembem Devi, it was a perfect end to her illustrious career on the football field. The veteran heroine of India’s national women’s football, had been playing the sport for well over two decades, and had won every domestic trophy there was to win. As the captain of the Indian women’s national team, she had also led the country to a number of international titles.
However, despite captaining India to a higher ranking than the men’s team, few Indians know about this unsung legend. This is the story of Oinam Bembem Devi, one of the greatest figures in the history of Indian football.
Born and raised in Imphal, Bembem Devi started playing football with the boys of her neighbourhood as a kid. Despite being a football fanatic himself, Bembem’s father, Oinam Nageshor Singh, was against his daughter playing the game and advised her to concentrate on studies.
However, Bembem loved football and was determined to carve a name for herself in the sport. Supported by her brothers, she would often sneak out of the house when her father wasn’t around, pick up her kit bag and race to the football ground. When her frequent injuries on the field started getting her severe scoldings from her parents, the determined young girl took to wearing full pants to hide her injuries and continued playing.
Bembem’s passion for football ensured that her progress in the sport was quick: in 1991, she was roped in by local club YAWA, and within four years’ time, she was playing for the Manipur Police football team. By this time, her parents had understood their little girl was a talented footballer. They gave her their support on the condition that Bembem would complete her education.
Playing tournaments meant missing classes and examinations but Bembem’s teachers would organize separate classes for her so that she could keep up with studies. Managing school was not the only struggle Bembem had to face. It was tough for her family to afford something as basic as a kit, let alone her travel expenses for tournaments, and a tracksuit handed down from another player became Bembem’s prized possession.
On the field, however, Bembem was unstoppable. Determined to excel, the diminutive girl put in her sweat and blood and soon, she had made the central midfield position her own. By 1994, her prolific performances had garnered the attention of the national coaches. Despite the fact that she had never played a game for the junior teams, her innate talent had ensured that she got her senior call-up.
In 1995, at the age of 15, Bembem stepped out in the Indian jersey for the senior side in a match against Hong Kong. From there, there was no looking back for her. When Bembem returned to Manipur after the tournament, she found a mentor in S. Ekendra Singh, the coach at a local football club. Under his expert guidance, Bembem blossomed as a player.
The turning point in her career came at the 1996 Asian Games, where Bemben announced her arrival at the national stage through her outstanding performances. The same year, All Manipur Football Association (AMFA) gave her the award of the Best Women Footballer Of The Year.
In 1998, Bembem was recruited as a constable with the Manipur Police. The salary she got through this job was too less to sustain her career but Bembem didn’t let her financial hardships affect her game. Selected in the national team, she soaked in all she could learn about the sport – from diet and field tactics to rest and recovery – from her experienced seniors.
The first time Bembem participated in the National Women’s Championship, the Manipur team went on to win the tournament. Of the 19 National Championships Bembem participated in, she went on to win 16 titles, including 9 as the captain of her state team.
By 2001, Bembem was the most experienced player on the national side and was adjudged the Woman Footballer of the Year by the All India Football Federation (AIFF). In 2003, she was handed the captain’s armband of the women’s national team at the AFC championship qualifiers in Thailand. Over the next 13 years, she captained the team in five title-winning campaigns in international tournaments. In addition, Bembem became a regular feature at qualifying tournaments for the World Cup and Olympics, in addition to AFC tournaments and the Asian Games.
Under Bemben’s captainship, the Indian women’s national team worked on their fitness and lack of communication – for example, the girls from Tamil Nadu were schooled in the basics of Hindi, the Biharis in Manipuri and the team on the whole in the language of football. Talking about it later in an interview, Bemben said that she did this because she knew that a good bond off the field would translate into better performances on the field.
Over the years, Bemben continued to add more titles to her trophy cabinet, both domestic and international. However, the Manipuri footballer had to wait for 2013 before she could get the award again; no award was handed out to female footballers between 2001 and 2013. In 2014, she became the first female footballer from India to be selected to play for play abroad for New Radiant Sports Club in the Maldives.
Bemben helped the Maldives’ New Radiant SC win two league titles in 2014 and 2015. She also finished as the top scorer in the league, earning the player of the tournament award. Her stellar performance paved the way for the selection of her talented teammates, Ngangom Bala Devi and Loitongbam Ashalata Devi, the next year.
At the age of 35, after more than two decades of playing for the country, Bembem Devi decided to hang up her boots on 31 December 2015. But the 2016 edition of the South Asian Games was being hosted by India and her teammates were insistent that she play with them. With the aim of winning one final gold for her country, the legendary footballer decided to have one final go and postponed her retirement for a few months.
Bembem Devi kept her parting promise. In the final, led by their veteran captain, the team rose to the occasion to convincingly defeat Nepal 4-0. For Bembem, it was a fitting farewell. And with it, one of the greatest figures in the history of Indian football, across both genders, finally bid adieu to the sport.
Since her retirement, Bembem Devi has taken up the role of a coach – she spends much of her time training kids back in Manipur as a part of the IFF-FIFA grassroots programme. She wants to start a football school for talented youngsters and she is determined to do it, with or without help from the Government. In an interview to the Times of India, the midfield magician said,
“I have decided not to get married. Instead I have decided to sacrifice my life for football. I eat, sleep and drink football, and my goal now is to train youngsters and promote football.”
Oinam Bembem Devi excelled in an era when women’s football in India was still in its infancy. There was no professional structure or consistent income stream for women’s football in India, but she decided to take the plunge into professional football, despite coming from a modest financial background. In spite of these hurdles, it is a testimony to Bembem’s passion for football that she has managed to carve a unique space for herself in Indian football.
Yet, despite her immense contribution to Indian football, Bembem Devi has hardly received any recognition in India. Even after a long, illustrious career, she has not been awarded the prestigious Arjuna Award. An unsung legend who has managed to change the narrative around women’s football in India, Manipur’s midfield dynamo deserves to be recognised and respected by her fellow countrymen.