Bala Devi: World Cup qualification would be so important to India

  • Bala Devi is a pioneering star of India’s women’s national team

  • Knee injury ruled her out of the ongoing AFC Women’s Asian Cup

  • Striker is backing the Blue Tigresses to qualify – and transform the nation’s sporting landscape

In India, there is belief that the FIFA Women’s World Cup™ stars are aligning.

With qualification for next year’s finals determined by an AFC Women’s Asian Cup on home soil, the Blue Tigresses would have harboured ambitions in any circumstances. But hopes have been sent soaring by the availability of five automatic slots, two play-off berths and the removal of Australia – as World Cup co-hosts – from the equation of qualifying for the expanded 32-team showpiece.

Amid all these reasons to believe that a breakthrough debut appearance is within reach, there is just one nagging cause for concern: the absence of Bala Devi. The striker is her country’s star player, reigning footballer of the year, averages close to a goal-a-game for the national team and, in 2020, joined Scottish giants Rangers to become the first female Indian to sign professional terms with a foreign club.

Sadly, an ACL injury cut short her time in Glasgow and has ended her hopes of leading India’s attack at the Asian Cup. But although a goalless draw in the hosts’ opening match against Iran did little to assuage concerns about the loss of this talismanic striker, Devi is confident in her colleagues’ ability to secure the nation’s first-ever World Cup ticket in her absence.

“I would have loved to have played in this Asian Cup,” she told FIFA.com. “But I am really excited and happy that the tournament is being hosted in India, and I’m proud of my country for bringing this tournament here. I also have confidence in our squad and what they can achieve. I am positive about our chances, especially because we are playing at home.

“Can we qualify for the World Cup? I think so. It’s been tough for the last two or three years to test ourselves in competitive matches. But I feel our level is high enough to compete and that we have enough quality to make it through.”

Inspiring the next generation

As exciting as the prospect of qualification is, it pales in comparison to the vision of what it would do for the landscape of Indian women’s football.

The description of the world’s second-most populous nation as a “sleeping giant” of the beautiful game has been made so often that it has entered the realm of cliché. But there is merit nonetheless in identifying India’s unrealised potential and, for Devi, the impact of a World Cup would be transformative.

“When I grew up, there was no women’s football available to watch,” she said. “I never saw a single women’s match, so I had no female heroes. We actually weren’t able to watch much football at all – even men’s.

“But I remember around the 2002 World Cup there was a poster of Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Beckham in a shop near to my house, and that picture alone inspired me. So [if India qualify], I could see a Women’s World Cup having a very big impact.

“Fortunately, for girls who love football, things have improved a lot. Now we have so many more opportunities and inspirational players to look up to. I really admire the likes of Marta and Megan Rapinoe. On the skill and talent front they are up there with the best of all time. More than that, though, I admire their character to carry their teams, bring visibility to women’s football and do what’s best for the sport.

“It’s great for young girls to have players like that to look up to. In India, reaching a World Cup would be so important for that next generation, and for me too! I definitely want to play in one.”

A springboard to success

Conscious that she will be 32 by the time next year’s finals roll around, Devi knows that this could be not only her best chance of a World Cup – but her last.

The next generation of Blue Tigresses have time on their side, and they also have the guarantee of an imminent appearance on the global stage. India will, after all, be represented as hosts when the country stages the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup later this year.

“The fact we’re hosting this tournament shows the support football, and women’s football, has in India now,” said Devi.

“When I started, football was not supported. But in 2017 we had the [FIFA] U-17 World Cup here, now it’s the Asian Cup and in a few months we will have the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup too. That wouldn’t have happened in the past and I was overjoyed when I heard that both tournaments would be coming to India.

“This is the first time that girls and women in India will get to see an event of this nature. It has already made the news and hopefully if the team does well it will create more of a buzz. When you look at the support for our team that participated in the FIFA U-17 World Cup India 2017, it was unbelievable. The numbers of girls playing football have gone up significantly and this World Cup can help India shine even brighter.”

Rangers Women s Forward Bala Devi holds off Celtic defender Celtic v Rangers, Scottish Women s Premier League, Football, Celtic Park, Glasgow, Scotland, UK - 21 Apr 2021

A happy homecoming

Devi, meanwhile, has exceeded expectations in her recovery from injury and hopes to be back playing as early as next month. The only question now is, ‘Where will that be?’

With her Rangers contract having expired, it certainly seems that her football – for now at least – will be played a little closer to home.

“I’m really happy to have had the experience abroad,” she explained. “We’d never had a women’s player from India going to play professionally in Europe before, so this was an important step and I was very happy to be that first player. I feel that I gained a lot

“But it’s been tough too because I haven’t been able to see my family for two years, so I think I will stay here in India for some time. The Indian women’s league is coming up soon and my plan to play in that. But after some time playing here, I hope I can return to Europe again.”

PUNE, INDIA - MAY 25: Ngangom Bala Devi, the flag bearer of womens football in the country, and the former captain of the Indian national team, shares a light moment with kids of United Poona Sports Academy at Aksharnandan School near SB road, on May 25, 2019 in Pune, India. (Photo by Sanket Wankhade/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)