Often considered India’s best woman football player ever, Oinam Bembem Devi announced her retirement two weeks ago, ending a distinguished career that lasted more than 20 years.
Bembem Devi, a native of Manipur, made her international debut in 1995, when India played against Guam in the Asian Championship. She won the South Asian Games title in 2010 and the SAFF Championship in 2012. Bembem Devi was also the AIFF Woman Footballer of the Year twice.
One of the few Indian woman footballers to have plied their trade in a foreign league, Bembem was signed by New Radiant of Maldives in 2014. Besides leading her team to victory in the League, she was also the highest scorer with six goals.
In an exclusive interview with Sportstar, Bembem Devi talks about her illustrious career and her future plans.
Question: We all set targets when we begin our careers. Do you have any regrets on not being able to achieve something you wanted to?
Answer: To play in the women’s World Cup was a big dream. We did try our best but could not make it. That is something I could not achieve. We have very talented footballers in the country but that is not enough to build a team. Our training camps are too short. So, when we go to a tournament, our co-ordination is really bad. Most of us don’t even speak the same language.
What can we do about this?
What we really require is a longer training camp every year. If we play together as a team more often, the coordination will start happening. Besides, we need to go for more tournaments, tours and friendly matches to gain more experience. What the women’s team needs is a long-term plan.
Recently AIFF announced a league, similar to the Indian Super League, for women. We haven’t heard anything afterwards…
Even I haven’t heard anything about it. Apparently AIFF hasn’t received any corporate backing for the league. But in my opinion, they should still go ahead with the tournament plans and announce a date. I’m sure, if they show intent from their side, sponsorship will come. Without that, the sponsors will always be doubtful.
What are the challenges that a woman football player faces today?
It isn’t too difficult for young girls today to take up football. Families are very supportive and, just like the boys, they are encouraged. In Manipur, a lot of girls come to me, asking me to teach them football. Hopefully, we can clear some ground and I can start giving some training. I do my bit whenever I get time.
So, what’s wrong then?
Very less opportunities. There is no professional league in the country. So, once these girls are out of their educational institutions, their opportunities are very limited and they depend entirely on the jobs they find. And when you are working, to maintain the same level of intensity is difficult.
Having said that, there are positive signs too. The railway teams from Bihar (East Central Railways), Odisha (East Coast Railways) and Guwahati (North East Frontier Railways) are providing more chances to players. These players have some work in the morning but evenings are free for them to train and keep themselves fit. They are also encouraged to take part in the Nationals. More teams are following suit, and hopefully the trend will continue.
Tell us about your stint in Maldives.
Even though India is ranked higher than Maldives, they have a professional league for women. Ashalata (Devi), Bala (Devi) and I had a great time there. It’s very impressive and they have a lot of facilities for the players. It is an international league with players from Pakistan, Sri Lanka etc.
What is great is that within three years of forming the national team, they started a professional league for women. We are yet to do it in our country.
What are your plans for the future?
I plan to pursue a career in coaching, helping young football players achieve their goals by sharing what I know about the game. I got my AFC ‘C’ Licence in 2010 and the ‘B’ Licence in 2013. I have also had conversations with the AIFF and even a FIFA representative who had visited Manipur in connection with starting an academy. Hopefully, something will happen soon.