In 2015, Oinam Bembem Devi decided to hang up her boots after representing India for two decades. No one could begrudge her that decision. After all, she had carried women’s football in the country for as long as any one could remember.
Her national teammates and the All India Football Federation (AIFF) had other ideas though. They cajoled her into representing the country one last time at the South Asian Games in 2016. Retirement still eluded her once that assignment was completed. Now the officials wanted her to play in the inaugural season of the Indian Women’s League (IWL).
It was almost as if the game could not do without her and there was merit to that idea. Bembem had blazed a trail ever since she made her national team debut in 1995 as a precocious 15 year old teenager. Her talent had already been apparent for years in Manipur before she made her national bow.
Not unlike her icon Marta from Brazil, she had mixed it up with the boys at a young age despite facing societal resistance. After representing her state in age-group tournaments, she was picked for the senior side at the age of 13. Despite being short in stature at 5’2’’, she made the central midfield position her own. She was famed for her runs from that position, providing assists by the bucketful while also providing a goal threat herself.
There are numerous firsts to her name in Indian football. She also became the first female footballer to ply her trade in a foreign league when Maldivian side, New Radiant, recruited her in 2014. The Indian government bestowed her with with the Arjuna Award in 2017, recognising her contribution to the game.
For a woman to play the game on the national stage is not easy for a variety of reasons. The more arduous ones usually have nothing to do with football. But it was even harder in Bembem’s time. She advocated for better player conditions throughout her career and if things are a little bit better these days, it is because of the efforts of her and others like her.
As a child, Bembem would cut her hair to pass off as a boy in order to play the game that she loved. She would wear trousers to hide the bruises on her legs from her mother. The game was her life and it still is. When she is not coaching Eastern Sporting Union, the best women’s team in the country, she can be found nurturing young talent in her native Manipur. She might have stopped playing finally, but retirement from the game is not an option.