All of 25, Dangmei Grace perfectly embodies the growth of women's football in India
In a relatively short span of time, Indian national team forward Dangmei Grace has become an inspiration for football-loving youngsters from all over the country.
When you think about successful female footballers in recent history, Bala Devi is probably the first name that comes to mind. The Manipuri superstar has made the country proud by becoming the first to play in Europe and has been setting new benchmarks with Rangers FC in Scotland. But dig a little deeper and you would find another name, also from Manipur, who has bulldozed her way to reckoning following a string of excellent performances. That name is Dangmei Grace, the Indian team forward who has been a consistent feature in the national setup ever since her debut in 2013. The Bridge caught up with her recently, and it was an absolute pleasure.
From the small village of Dimdailong in Manipur to becoming one of the biggest names in women's football in the country, Grace has travelled a long way. As is always the case, there have been a number of contributors towards her success. "From my parents to all the coaches that I have trained under, as well as the players that I have played with, I am grateful for the support that I have always received," she greets us with the first smile of many in the space of a few minutes.
2020 was a difficult year for women's football though. After the high of winning gold at the South Asian Games in 2019, the Indian eves were expected to take giant strides towards consolidating their position as an Asian powerhouse, especially with the 2022 AFC Women's Asian Cup to be held in India. It was also supposed to be the year of the U17 Women's World Cup with India set to feature as the host nation. However, the pandemic proved to be a dampener and a year that promised so much eventually ended with minimal on-field action for the girls.
"Of course, we didn't get much practice during lockdown. But we had specific instructions from our physio regarding how to conduct strength and conditioning sessions at home so that we could come back in perfect shape. The announcement of the Turkey tour therefore was a big boost. Then when we finally assembled in Goa for the training camp, all of us were very excited to see each other again and prepare for the matches. I feel that the girls did extremely well and gave their all in both trips considering all the SOPs that were put in place by the AIFF and everything that was going on all around," Grace quips.
Indeed, the Indian team's exposure tours to Turkey and Uzbekistan earlier this year saw quite a few people sit up and take notice and they were in for a surprise. The team put up solid displays against much higher ranked sides like Serbia, Ukraine, Russia and Uzbekistan. Ranked 53rd in the latest FIFA rankings, the Indian team is finally getting its due recognition but there is still a long way to go before they are mentioned in the same breath as the men's side.
One wonders why that is though, since in terms of their comparative ability, the women have been miles ahead of the men on the world stage for quite some time now. "I feel people don't realize that we are much ahead of the men's team in terms of FIFA rankings and maybe we don't get enough credit sometimes, but with us participating in more and more international competitions, that will hopefully change," the 25-year-old concludes.
A star performer for both club and country, Grace was announced as the AIFF Emerging Player for 2019 following a scintillating 12-month period when she shone for Sethu FC in the Indian Women's League (IWL). However, the brace against Indonesia in the Olympic Qualifier Round 2 match that same year was probably the moment when she had truly arrived. "That was one of the best nights of my life. It was an Olympic qualifier and to score for your country in such an important game was a dream come true. I was very happy for everyone in the side," she says with a certain humility that typifies most people from the North East.
Having started her IWL career with the Imphal-based KRYPHSA FC and then won the tournament with Sethu FC, Grace truly believes that the league has shown tremendous improvement over the past couple of seasons. "Every year, the standard of football keeps going up. More teams are participating and they are better prepared. Moreover, the length of the season is gradually increasing too which can only be good for the players," she reasons.
Be that as it may, the gulf in quality between the state leagues and the IWL and in turn between the IWL and the national team still needs some bridging and she is quick to admit that. "The way we train during the IWL and then for the national team is completely different," she explains before going on to add, "Lack of time and resources doesn't allow most clubs to provide the level of expertise in various aspects that we get during national camps. The exposure tours that we go on also help the players understand different strategies and learn to adapt more quickly."
Maybe it is time for the big clubs to step up then, is it not? "I hope they do. The following and support that clubs in Bengal, Goa and some other places have, it would be a huge helping hand for women's football if they were to promote the women's game in some capacity," she signs off as kind of an afterthought. That might be true but even without their support, women's football in India is on an upward surge. And with battle-hardened soldiers like Dangmei Grace at the forefront, they are aiming for nothing but the top.