CHENNAI: Oinam Bembem Devi was waiting for a flight back home to Imphal when she got that call. She was returning from the inaugural function of the Indian Women’s league in Bengaluru and she had to change flight at Kolkata.
“It was a call from an official in the sports ministry saying that the Padma Shri was being conferred upon me,” said Bembem. “I was shocked and I was confused about what to do. So I did not tell anyone.”
Bembem’s disbelief was justified — rarely are women footballers in India awarded such honours. But few deserve it more than her. For decades, she carried the torch for the women’s game in the country. After making her international debut at the age of 15, she served as the national team captain for 12 uninterrupted years. She was the first Indian woman to play for a foreign club, donning the colours of Maldives’s New Radiant FC. But, despite all her exploits, recognition seldom came her way. Even an Arjuna award came only in the dusk of her career, in 2017.
Now retired as a player and focussed on coaching, Bembem has long since learnt not to be disappointed when deserved recognition fails to come, and not to get carried away when it finally does. A day after she found about her being the first woman footballer to get a Padma Shri, she began her day with a practice session with the girls she coaches these days. There were no celebrations, no felicitation functions. “I’m the coach of the Manipur team, so we’re leaving soon for an Indo-Myanmar friendly match. So I had to go straight to practice,” she said.
In a year where India will host its first-ever FIFA women’s football event — the U-17 Women’s World Cup in November, Bembem’s recognition is another fillip for the game in India. She believes that too, hoping that the younger girls, who’re taking the sport up now, will look at her being recognised and believe that they too can get there one day. That includes the Indian team for the World Cup, with whom she spends a lot of time. “It’s a good sign for women’s football in India,” she said. “I want the girls playing football to realise that they too can get the Arjuna and the Padma Shri. They just have to work hard. But I feel this is just the beginning of women’s football here. I see more women footballers coming up to join the club.”