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.