It was an emotional moment for Oinam Bembem Devi, the ‘Durga of Indian Women Football,’ after she got to know that she has been chosen for Padma Shri honours. Bembem became the first-ever women footballer to named for the 3rd highest civilian awards.
“I was at the Kolkata airport when I got a call from an official of government of India. He asked me if I’m Bembem Devi…then told me that I have been chosen for the Padma Shri award. I didn’t know how to react…it is a big thing for me to get chosen for this prestigious recognition,” Bembem told The Bridge.
After that she shared the good news with her mother back at home. “Though my mother doesn’t exactly understand the worth of the honour, I told her that I’m getting the Padma Shri. Then I shared with my brothers and family members,” she added.
In the process, Bembem joins the elite club of Late Gostho Paul, Late Sailen Manna, Chuni Goswami, PK Banerjee, Bhaichung Bhutia and current Indian Men’s National Team captain Sunil Chhetri as Indian Footballers who won the prestigious Padma Shri Award. Sunil Chhetri won the award in 2019.
Bembem, the highest capped Indian women football player with 85 appearances is optimistic that this recognition will help in boosting the morale of women football in India.
“This is a big thing for me. For any sportspersons to get these civilian awards are special. I think this is recognition of my 21 years for Indian football. So I feel special. I try my best to contribute towards improving the game in India. I would like to thank the government of India, AIFF, Manipur association and everyone who have helped me in the journey. I think this award will inspire the youngsters to play the game more dedicatedly. Many even didn’t know I was but this recognition will help the players to understand the women footballers are also important,” she added.
Making her national team debut at the age of 15 in 1995, Bembem donned the national colours until 2016. She captained the national side from 2003 and has won three SAF Cup titles (2010, 2012, 2014) and two South Asian Games gold medals (2010, 2016). She is also a two-time AIFF Women’s Player of the Year (2001, 2013).
Bembem also felt that besides the Indian Women’s League (IWL), there should be leagues for women football in every state.
“Apart from all these reorganizations, there should be an environment for competitive football among women in state and district levels,” she said.
Bembem said that with the football atmosphere heading towards the right direction, she wants the new generation girls to represent the country in Football World Cup.
“Our senior team has been playing very well over the last two years. They are playing against higher ranking teams and doing well. Our ranking is also improving. I would like to tell the young girls that they can do it what I couldn’t do (to represent India in the world cup). I would be very happy to see them play at the highest level,” Bembem said.
On the chances of India at the 2020 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup, she said that if the team can play well, it can reach to the round 16.