Bembem Devi becomes first woman footballer to receive the Padma Shri

Indian football stalwart Oinam Bembem Devi has been conferred the Padma Shri Award – the fourth highest civilian award in India. The former Indian women's football team captain, who is also known as the ‘Durga of Indian football’, was among six sportspersons who received the recognition for their contribution to Indian sports this year.

Bembem is the first Indian woman footballer and the seventh football player overall to be recognised for their service to Indian football with the Padma Shri. Previous recipients of the title include the Late Gostho Paul, Late Sailen Manna, Chuni Goswami, PK Banerjee, Bhaichung Bhutia and current Indian men’s national team captain Sunil Chhetri, who received the award last year.

The 2017 Arjuna Award winner began playing at the age of eight, with her international debut arriving in 1995 when she was just 15. In 2001, the midfielder became the first player to win the AIFF Women’s Footballer of the Year and was named the national team captain two years later. Under Bembem’s leadership, the Indian team won multiple titles and two gold medals at the South Asian Games. She was named the AIFF Women’s Footballer of the Year for the second time in 2013, three years before she hung up her boots to focus on the managerial side of the game.

The Indian legend helped Eastern Sporting Union, Manipur, to the first Indian Women’s League title in 2017, and has been involved with the Under-15, Under-16 and Under-17 women’s national teams. Bembem also coached the Cheetahs at the 2019 Hero Under-17 Women’s Championship, organized by the Football Sports Development Limited (FSDL), in West Bengal recently.

In an interview with AIFF, she said, “It was a moment of immense satisfaction - the moment when all your pains, sacrifices, hard work combined together and came in a package to bring the Padma Shri. I was extremely excited, and it was hard to hide it. This motivates me for my future assignments and endeavours.”

The 39-year-old has been a champion for the development of the women’s game in India for a good few years now. Hoping that the award helps inspire more girls to take up the sport, she noted, “This is a recognition to women’s football in India. This is an eye opener to all who believe you can’t go places playing women’s football in India. I hope this will inspire all the girls and their parents to believe you the ‘Beautiful game’ can make you reach higher echelons.”

“This is the year of the FIFA U-17 World Cup India 2020. This Padma Shri award is for the next generation of girls who will play, or take up the sport some years later,” she aspired.

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