The happiness in her heart and the unbridled air of optimism she has is contagious. Footballer Bala Devi is on cloud nine having been signed by the Scottish club Rangers Football Club and scripting history by becoming the first Indian woman to play outside the country professionally. The Manipuri lass, who has been a part of many of Indian women football team’s success stories, is on her way to her hometown in the Bishnupur district.
Her family and wellwishers, who are equally enthralled by her success, await to give her a grand farewell before she set sail to Scotland on Tuesday to kickstart her career with the Scottish giants, where she has signed an 18-month contract.
The 29-year-old’s contract comes after a successful trial last November facilitated by Bengaluru FC which entered into a two-year collaboration with Rangers last September. Bala will don the prestigious No.10 jersey at the Glasgow-based side.
Nine years ago, in 2011, two promising Indian youngsters, Sunil Chhetri and Jeje Lalpekhlua had travelled to Glasgow for trials in Rangers FC, but they had to return on a disappointing note. The opportunity materialising for Bala bears the testimony of how Indian football has grown leaps and bound in a matter of a decade.
“I had already been told that I had done well in the trials, but there was a lot of legal work regarding the working visa that had to be sorted out. When I got to know that the SFA Panel had granted me the right to work there I was, overjoyed! Probably one of the happiest moments of my life that a life long dream would come through.” quips Bala in a conversation with The Bridge.
Bala has been shuttering the glass ceiling from an early childhood, whose inspiration for this sport came from her footballer father. In the 14 years, she has played for India, she scored 52 goals in 58 appearances for the national team. She has been the top scorer in the Indian Women’s League in the previous two seasons where she netted 38 times. She even led her state Manipur to win the last Senior Women’s National Football Championship, topping the goalscorers’ tables with 21 goals in five matches. Her week-long trial in Rangers also saw her finding the net.
“I did not know what to expect from the style of play when I reached there during my trials. It was my first time in the UK. The coaching staff and management were very friendly and they did not put immediate pressure on me. The weather was cold, completely different from what I have experienced, but I came back with a lot of positives. I scored twice in one of the games we played among the players at Rangers during my trial,” says Bala, who took part in the training session and in one of the friendly matches of the club towards the end of the season where she played as an attacking midfielder.
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The experience gave Bala the confidence that Indian players could make the cut, but she is well aware that plenty of work needs to be done. She adds:
The Rangers Women’s Football Club plays in the Scottish Women’s Premier League, the top division of women’s football in Scotland. In July 2019, the club announced a significant commitment to women’s football by integrating their teams more fully into its operations and providing further financial support with the aim of becoming professional. Bala adds, “The club has an outstanding history in and a huge fan base. The women’s team is targeting new heights and I want to be part of this exciting time for Rangers Club and Rangers Women’s Football and the Scottish Women’s League.”
Starting at the age of just eight in a local team Iksha, Bala moved to a club in Imphal before joining Manipur Police, a team that has given many players to the country, including the legendary Oinam Bem Bem Devi. Bala Devi also enjoyed a stint in the Maldives, although it was not of a professional nature. Bala is indebted to her family for their pillar-like support and says she will be missing them while she’ll be on her stint in Scotland.
The 2015-15 AIFF Women’s Player of the Year credits plenty of changes over a couple of years for the development of football in India. And she believes her move to Rangers will inspire a generation of women footballers. “I hope more girls can get opportunities like this. I know a lot will depend on how I do there and if I can perform well I think more opportunities will surely come up for Indian women/girl footballers and then more can dream of making football their full-time profession!”