Oinam Bembem Devi is a pioneering figure in Indian women’s football
Former national captain nicknamed after a beloved Hindu goddess
She says “the sky is the limit” after the country hosts the U-17 Women’s World Cup
The most prominent figures in Indian football have described her as “a living legend” and “a flagbearer” for the women’s game.
But there is a moniker that has stuck more closely to Oinam Bembem Devi: ‘Durga of Indian Football’. As Bembem Devi herself explains, there can be no higher praise. “Durga is a [Hindu] goddess celebrated all over India to rejoice in the triumph of good over evil,” she said, smiling, "so I didn’t know how to react to being given that name. That someone could be nicknamed ‘Durga’ for playing football was a huge inspiration, and an honour.”
The grandness of the title reflects the esteem in which Bembem Devi is held, and the influence she carries. A beloved former India captain, she began her international career at the tender age of just 15 and remained a standout until her retirement in 2016, inspiring the team to new heights along the way.
Her service was recognised by the national government with an Arjuna Award, for outstanding achievement in sport, and more recently when she became the first women’s footballer to be named a Padma Shri – India’s fourth-highest civilian honour. But like so many other pioneering female figures, her early steps in the beautiful game were fraught with difficulties.
Though drawn to football by “the simplicity of the sport, and the joy in kicking the ball”, she found herself forced to change her name – ‘Bobo’ and ‘Amko' were favourite pseudonyms – to play with the local boys. “Had I told them my name was Bembem they would have understood I was a girl and not taken me in their team to play,” she explained.
Her parents’ attitude represented an equally significant barrier. “One needs to understand the socio-cultural context to understand their mindset,” she said. “They wanted me to concentrate on my studies. At that time, I disagreed with them. But now when I look back and try to see things from their perspective, I understand.
“It meant extra work for me because I had to compensate for lost time studying, as there was no way I would give up football. I had to balance both. It was tough. But eventually the ice melted a bit, when I first made it to the Indian national team. There were smiles all over, and once I scored for India, there was no looking back.
“I feel I have been able to show girls that they should follow their dreams. But at the same time they shouldn’t be rebels and fight against the wishes of their parents – you need to find that balance. But if I have been able to inspire even 11 girls to play the sport, I feel I have played my part.”
There will certainly be no-one prouder when 11 Indian girls line up on the world stage for the first time. Bembem Devi’s only regret is that she isn’t young enough to take the field herself.
“When I was a player, I couldn’t even dream that my country would host a World Cup like this,” she said. “The girls are so lucky - sometimes I get a bit jealous [laughs]! The confidence, the interest, the development, the inspiration will all come from this tournament. And then the sky is the limit.
“I can’t express in words how happy I was when I heard we would be hosting this tournament, and I need to praise the AIFF for bringing it to India. It shows how serious they are about developing women’s football.”
Images courtesy of the All India Football Federation