Grit, craze, equality: Why Manipur dominates the Indian team at Women's Asian Cup
Eight of the 23 players selected in the Indian women's team for the AFC Asian Cup hail from the northeastern state of Manipur. The Bridge speaks to the coach of the club in Imphal for which most of them play.
Manipur continues to dominate the sporting landscape of the country. As many as eight of the 23 players selected in the Indian team for the upcoming AFC Women's Asian Cup hail from this northeastern state, all of them having overcome huge challenges to make it to the international stage.
Those in the know attribute Manipur's success story to the culture, passion and love for sports, and the sheer determination of the people to make it big in sports.
L. Chaoba Devi, a former assistant coach of the Indian Football team who is now the coach of KRYPHSA Football Club (an Imphal-based club playing in the Indian Women's League), said that five of the eight Manipuri players in the squad - captain Ashalata Devi, Grace Dangmei, Ratanbala Devi, Maibam Devi and Sweety Devi - play for her club.
"The one thing I feel is that football is in our blood, in Manipur's blood. Here, whoever chooses the game are the ones who go forward," Chaoba Devi told The Bridge.
"After the Under-17 World Cup in 2017, the football wave in the country has turned a corner. The number of trainees has increased. I hope the upcoming Women's Asian Cup will be a platform from which Indian football, especially women's football, will rise further," she said with pride.
What Manipur lacks in infrastructure it makes up with craze
Indian women's football team head coach Thomas Dennerby on January 11 declared the list of 23 players for the AFC Women's Asian Cup which is set to take place in Mumbai, Navi Mumbai, and Pune from January 20 onwards.
Out of these 23 players, 9 players are from northeast India, of which 8 are from Manipur. Maibam Linthoingambi Devi (23), (Goalkeeper), Sweety Devi Ngangbam (22), (Defender), Loitongbam Ashalata Devi (28), Hemam Shilky Devi (17) ( Defender), Yumnam Kamala Devi (30), Nongmeithem Ratanbala Devi (22), Naorem Priyangka Devi (19) (Midfielder) and Grace Dangmei (26) (Forward) are from Manipur while Anju Tamang (Midfielder) is from Sikkim.
Unfortunately women's football star seasoned striker Ngangom Bala Devi, who is also from Manipur, is going to miss the tournament because of an ACL (Anterior Cruciate Ligament) surgery performed last September.
"Playing in the AFC Women Asian Cup has been a dream for these girls," said L Chaoba Devi, who added that she had to step down from her role with the national team for personal reasons.
When asked about the dominance of Manipur in the national team, Chaoba Devi said the infrastructure may not be as good here as some other states but the craze for football at all levels among the people make Manipur a football hub.
She said, "The Manipur government is taking numerous initiatives for the development of football. The chief minister Biren Singh and current sports minister, Letpao Haokip, are also quite active in sports, especially football. Recently the state government provided financial assistance of Rs 3 lakh each to 15 football clubs participating in the Manipur State League. The state government and the local clubs give a lot of importance to the players at the grassroots level."
"The All Manipur Football Association is taking a lot of initiatives to popularize football, especially amongst women. Even now, a women's league is going on in Manipur where six women's clubs from different districts are participating. All these clubs, supported by the district associations, the government and the AIFF are taking women's football forward," she added.
No gender discrimination, parent's involvement
This is not the first time Manipur has shone through in Indian football. In the Under-17 FIFA World Cup in 2017, the last time India hosted an international tournament of such a stature, 8 players in the Indian squad had been from Manipur.
In the 2020/21 season, there were 43 players from Manipur. Around 23% (81) of the total players in ISL 2021-22 are from the northeast. Also, Manipur is the only state in India that has two I-league teams, NEROCA FC and Tiddim Road Athletic Union.
Chaoba Devi told the Bridge that one reason for this could be that there is no gender discrimination in Manipur sports. She said every athlete gets equal opportunities in Manipur irrespective of gender, along with the same treatment and access to infrastructure. Another reason could be that parents take an active interest in their children's sporting development here because sports is part of the curriculum, she suggested.
A watershed year in Indian football
While all eyes may be on the AFC Women's Asian Cup for now, the other opportunity for India to return to the spotlight in international football is when the upcoming FIFA U17 Women's World Cup will be staged here.
"I feel proud that two girls from my club and around 9 girls from Manipur were picked by the AIFF for the Indian camp for the U17 Women's World Cup. I hope that all of them will make it to the main Indian squad."
For now, India is facilitating mainland Asia's most noteworthy women's football contest and in question is a potential place in the 2023 FIFA World Cup. India has been drawn in Group A alongside China, Chinese Taipei, and Iran.
They will face Iran on January 20, followed by Chinese Taipei and China on January 23 and January 26. While the All-India Football Federation (AIFF) has not named a captain yet, the experienced Ashalata Devi - from Manipur and KRYPHSA FC - is expected to lead the side.