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Ahead of Indian women's Asian Cup tryst, a legend says fans have a role far more important than they realise

Oinam Bembem Devi tells The Bridge that Indian women can reach the Fifa World Cup before the men's team, but that they need the enthusiasm of fans to get there.

Known as Durga of Indian football - Former Indian womens footballer Oinam Bembem Devi

Known as 'Durga of Indian football' - Former Indian women's footballer Oinam Bembem Devi


Soumya Bontra

Updated: 7 Feb 2022 12:42 PM GMT

Often called the 'Durga of Indian football', it is easy to say that Bembem Devi is one of the most important figures who has led to bringing Indian women's football where it is today.

Before she retired from the national team in 2016 she was also an important part of it. So naturally, the legend is delighted that India has the opportunity to host the AFC Women's Asian Cup 2022. But she is frank about the challenges.

"As Indian women footballers, we have never received any support from our people before. For a team, that's very demotivating and discouraging. So, my message to Indian fans is โ€“ even if there is a bio bubble and unfortunately an audience won't be allowed in the stadiums, supporting the Indian team in other ways is always helpful. This encourages and motivates them to play better," she tells The Bridge.

The AFC Women's Asian Cup 2022 is also going to act as the final qualification for the FIFA 2023 Women's World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. Having participated in the Asian Cup and other major tournaments herself, Bembem believes the Indian women's team has the potential to qualify for the World Cup, even before the men's team.

"Our women's team has been training for this tournament for the last six months. They have good coordination and confidence. I believe if they perform as a team, they can definitely reach the semi-finals and also qualify for the World Cup, before the men's team."

For the Indian team as well as its coaches, the footballer has a special message. "You'll be playing in your motherland and the whole nation will be watching you, including your families. Football is a game of collective responsibility and hence if a match is lost, the captain and coach shouldn't blame any player for it. Confidence is good, but don't be overconfident and underestimate any teams."

When it comes to sports, especially football, the northeast states of India have produced some of the best players in the country. Born in Imphal, Manipur, Bembem is proud that her state is an exemplary one when it comes to being supportive of women's football and encouraging young talent.

"I'm happy that even after I retired, players like Dangmei Grace and others are representing Manipur at the national level. Unlike in many states, I haven't faced any discouragement from people in Manipur. They always support every event held here for women athletes."

"I've also played with men footballers at the beginning of my career, and no one had any objections with it. Playing with the men helped me gain some advantage and improve my game," she added.

Bembem has thrived in the Indian football world for quite a while now. Talking about the improvement in Indian women's football she said, "Earlier women's football was not known of in India. We never had any brands sponsor our kits or proper travel aid. Now AIFF along with SAI has been helping a lot in the development of women football and hopefully the team takes advantage of all the facilities and keeps working hard to improve their performance."

Bembem Devi is the only Indian woman footballer to have received the Padma Shri, India's highest civilian honour, in 2020. She also received the Arjuna Award in 2017, making her the second woman footballer after Shanti Mullick to receive the prestigious award.

Bembem Devi reciving her Padma Shri Award in 2020

After retirement in 2016, Bembem was appointed the head coach of Eastern Sporting Union in the 2017 Indian Women's League. In the same year, she became the first manager in Indian Women's League history to win the title. A year later in 2018, Bembem was also appointed assistant coach of the U-17 women's team.

Even though Bembem makes winning as a manager look easy, she says being a coach is significantly more difficult than being a player. "When you're a player you don't have much pressure on you as an individual. But when you're a coach you have the whole team's responsibility, except maybe the goalkeepers. When I was playing, I just had to practice, relax and recover. But as a coach, I always have the pressure of selecting players and team planning."

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