Two of the present India Women’s national team members were not even born when Oinam Bembem Devi made her India debut back in 1995.
But now, goalkeeper Tikina Samal and midfielder Dangmei Grace share the same dressing room with the iconic footballer from Manipur. In a freewheeling interview with AIFF Media, the former India captain spoke on women’s football, the secret of the success of the sport in Manipur, AIFF’s initiatives, her meeting with FIFA Consultant for Women’s football Monika Staab and much more.
Women’s Football in India is synonymous to Oinam Bembem Devi.
(Bembem Devi smiles) I feel blessed and honoured (and smiles again). Football is what I live with. I stay in a place where the football culture is infectious. I eat, sleep and drink the sport. It seems just yesterday when I made my debut for India in the AFC Cup main round in Malaysia. Time flies, and how.
What goes through your mind when you look back at the eighteen years you have played for India?
It has been a dream come true to represent my country. I was playing football since 1991 for my State U-13 team when I played the sub-junior tournament for Manipur for the first time. In 1995, my dream came true when I donned the National jersey in the AFC Cup. The rest, as they say, is history.
I have captained India in the 2003 AFC Cup and in the South Asian Games in 2010, Bangladesh and even the SAFF Championships in 2012. We won both SAG and SAFF Championships. It was a very proud moment for me.
What’s the secret behind Manipur’s domination in producing quality Women Footballers?
The Grassroots Programme for Women is very strong in Manipur. A lot of emphasis is given on U-13 and U-14 Teams. In every district there is a Grassroot Programme in place and girls play from a very tender age.
We also have a proper League in Manipur where five teams play in the Senior Division. I play for Manipur Police Club since 1998. Girls get to play almost throughout the year. Thus we have more footballers from the North East in the National Team.
Orissa also has quite a few players in the National Team. Is it because of the same reason?
Definitely! Over the past few years, Women’s football in Orissa has improved a lot. There is a Girl’s Hostel where the girls stay together for most part of the year and play football. This helps immensely, being in the groove is very important.
You’re the only member in the current Indian Team who played in the AFC Cup main round back in 2003.
Yes! I have been part of many AFC Cup campaigns – right from 1995, 1997, 1999, 2001, 2003, 2005. The AFC Cup Qualifiers started after that, from 2006. We have a good team this time. Chinese Taipei will be tough but we are playing a good brand of football and I hope do well. Only one team qualifiers to the main round next year in Japan, so we have to be on our toes always. The match against Myanmar is very important.
India finished fifth in the 1997 AFC Cup in China. How do you look back at it?
We had attended a one-month Camp in Germany where we played matches against the German clubs and were trained under German coaches. The exposure trip did wonders. We came back and beat Guam 10-0. One more goal and we would have been through to the semifinals. We lost to Japan by only one goal. Think of it, Japan the current World Champions. They were always very strong.
I think the AIFF is organising exposure tours now and it’s very helpful. We played the Combined Dutch Team and then Bahrain in Bahrain before such an important tournament. The Camps help a great deal too. We are getting better facilities too. AIFF is doing a lot for women’s football now. It’s very heartening and encouraging.
You met FIFA Consultant Monika Staab on her visit to India. How did the meeting pan out?
I told her to build an Academy for Women Footballers — it will do a World of good. She promised me that she will take up the matter. She is very enthusiastic about Indian women’s football and believes strongly in our potential.
Almost all the girls in the team and outside idolise you. What message do you have for them?
If you love the game of football, go for it. Don’t be negative. I always tell the younger lot in the Team — ‘If you face any problem come to me.’ I try to guide them on and off the field. They respect me a lot and that makes me more responsible.
(AIFF Press Release)