Let the girls play and make the nation proud, Bembem Devi appeals to parents

Indian women's football team legend Oinam Bembem Devi has issued a heartfelt appeal to parents of aspiring women footballers from across the country to let their children follow their dreams and make the nation proud.

With the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup scheduled to be held in India in 2020, the focus of the entire nation has been firmly trained on women's football in the country, particularly on the youth levels. The pan-India interest surrounding the ongoing Hero U-17 Women's Championship in Kalyani is a glowing testimony of the same with the tournament's campaign 'Grounds Know No Gender' - designed to encourage more and more young girls to take up football -resonating strongly with the fans across the country. Bembem Devi, too, is a major stakeholder in the movement and has been coaching the Cheetahs - one of the four participating teams in the competition.

In India, societal and family pressure have traditionally been two of the biggest hindrances for young girls looking to take up the game of football as a viable long-term career option - a lot more than the boys. Bembem Devi, who is regarded as one of the pioneers of women's football in the country, in a recent interview, shared her own life-experience and issued an appeal to parents of young girls to come forward and help demolish the already-crumbling barrier between their children and their dreams.

Bembem Devi’s own story

Narrating how her journey into football started, the Arjuna Awardee recollected, "When I was 9-10 years old, I used to play football with my school's boys team but never had a proper introduction to the game. Then in 1991, there was a tournament in Manipur. The boys in our local club said, there's a football tournament going on and I tagged along out of curiosity. It was there I got to know about women's football. Once I saw that I was determined to take it up seriously. I joined the girl's team and the same year itself, I got selected for the sub-junior state team. I wasn't in the first team but I was eager and ready to learn in order to make it to the national team."

"I was prepared to sacrifice for football. I had a target to play for 20 years or so. I played for 20 years and then decided to retire in 2015. But India was hosting the South Asian Games in 2016, so I decided to return to help out the country. I am glad I got to play the beautiful game and represent the women's team for 21 years. I set out to show women can do it and I am glad I could," she added.

The dreams, however, didn't manifest without some hurdles along the way. "Initially my father was a little tentative. He wanted me to concentrate on studies. I had good ranks from standard 1 to 5. So, he wanted me to concentrate on studies. I was confident I could do both. It was difficult at first and he got really angry at times, but I used to ask my mother to support me. But once I got selected to the Indian team in 1995, he was okay with it. Luckily at my home, it was never about a gender thing that girls can't play a sport. In fact, in Manipur, there was no discrimination between girls and boys. Not only in football but every sport."

Let the girls be free to pursue their dreams…

The 39-year-old then went on to admit that she was somewhat lucky in that respect and illustrated exactly why. "While at the national setup, I used to know this girl. She was from Tamil Nadu, a really talented player, very good player. Her parents wanted to get her married and forced her to get married and she had to give up on her dreams."

The footballing icon, however, opined that the winds of change have already started blowing but invited more encouragement and support on the part of parents to affect the change. "Nowadays, however, it has become a lot different and people have come to recognize that football can be a viable career option for girls. But I would still like to appeal to parents to let the girls be free to play and make the nation proud," she said.

Winds of change…

Detailing out how exactly the nature of women's football has changed from the time she started pursuing her dream, Bembem Devi stated, "It has changed a lot. Back in our days, we didn't have branded equipment, flights to travel, etc. These are basics but big motivations. We used to play in equipment locally made in Kolkata. Furthermore, there are tournaments like the Hero U-17 Women's Championship. The scene is much more competitive. I could never qualify for the World Cup, but these girls will get to play in the U17 women's World Cup in a year's time. It will help them gauge the difference between playing in the AFC competitions and the global game. I am so happy for them."

Talking about her take on India's chances in the global showpiece in 2020, she said, "The girls are preparing well for five-six months. If they give 100 per cent, I believe we can make the round of 16."

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