Indian football icon Bembem Devi retires. Know her beyond mere tokenism

Photo: AIFF Media

Indian football icon Bembem Devi retires. Know her beyond mere tokenism

For Bembem Devi, it was a perfect end to an illustrious career on the football field. As the Indian women's national team defeated Nepal 4-0 to clinch the gold medal the the 12th South Asian Games in Shillong on Monday, 15 February, one of the greatest figures in the history of Indian football bid adieu to the beautiful game.

At 35 years of age, it was probably the right time for Bembem Devi to hang up her boots. The veteran midfielder from Manipur had been around the women's football circuit for well over two decades, and won every domestic trophy there was to win.

As the captain of the Indian women's national team, she also led the country to a number of international titles. Towards the twilight of her career, Bembem led Maldives' New Radiant SC to two consecutive national league titles.

The midfield maestro from Manipur

Soft-spoken and shy, Bembem Devi hardly looks like the leader of a football team. On the field, however, she is a different character altogether.

The midfield anchor of the national team has captained the team for more than half of her playing career. She never buckled down with age, and continued to be a mainstay in the side till her last game.

Born and raised in Imphal, Bembem Devi started playing football with a few boys of her locality as a kid. Her progress in the sport was quick: in 1991, she was roped in by local club YAWA, and within four years' time, she was in the Manipur Police football team, Manipur state team and the Indian national team.

Initially facing stiff resistance from her father, Bembem's quick progress as a footballer helped win the support of her family. She went on to enjoy immediate success with the Manipur team, winning the National Women's Championship in her debut 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.

In 2003, the midfielder was handed the captain's armband of the women's national team. Over the next 13 years, she has captained the team in five title-winning campaigns in international tournaments.

Unappreciated, unacknowledged, unrewarded

Women's football continues to be considered as a poor cousin to the men's game. In India, an institutionalised attitude of indifference from the All India Football Federation (AIFF) has seen the women's game undergo a steady decline in recent years.

In 2001, Bembem Devi was adjudged the Woman Footballer of the Year by the All India Football Federation (AIFF). The national governing body, however, decided not to present the award to any player again for the next eleven years.

Despite adding more titles to her trophy cabinet, both domestic and international, the Manipuri footballer had to wait for 2013 before she could get the award again.

Bembem also led her state to four gold medals in National Games throughout her career, as well as Maldives' New Radiant SC to two national titles in 2014 and 2015.

Yet, despite her mammoth achievements in an industry where there is limited scope for women to earn a living, even less for excelling internationally, Bembem Devi has hardly received any recognition in India.

The legendary footballer has no Arjuna Award to show for her feats, nor does she receive any media coverage in her own country. Bembem Devi, in spite of an illustrious career in football, has only been honoured with mere tokenism by the country's national football governing body.

Bembem's legacy

Bembem Devi. Photo: Twitter (@AiffMedia)

Photo: Twitter (@AiffMedia)

Bembem Devi excelled in an era with no professional structure for women's football in India. Coming from a financially modest background, she decided to take the plunge into professional football despite the absence of any considerable or consistent income stream in the sport.

In the women's game in India, Bembem Devi is a highly revered figure. It would be unfair to compare her male counterparts in India, given the fact that the women's game is still in its infancy in the country; but regardless of that, Bembem will go down as one of the greatest Indian footballers, across both genders.

Women's football in the country has been grossly mismanaged in India for a long period of time. This has greatly affected the progress of a country that showed promises of emerging as an Asian superpower in the late-90s.

The AIFF has long planned to start a women's league in India. The organisation, however, is yet to move beyond the planning stage. In spite of these obstacles, it is a testimony of Bembem's brilliance on the field that she has managed to create a space for herself in Indian football.

In an interview to Catch in 2015, Bembem had lamented about the lack of sponsors for the women's game in India. The same issue is likely to keep hounding women's football in India for a few years

The greatest tribute to the midfield magician from Manipur will probably be if the AIFF creates a proper professional structure for women's football in the country, that is financially feasible and sustainable in the long run.

For someone who has managed to change the narrative around women's football in India, Bembem Devi deserves more credit than is attributed to her.

Bhargab Sarmah

Bhargab Sarmah @BhargabSarmah