It is only in recent years that Indian football has found a place for itself on the world map. The likes of Baichung Bhutia and Sunil Chhetri were first to carry the torch, and players like Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, and more recently Ishan Pandita, have taken that forward.
Despite the men’s national team’s best efforts, they currently sit at 109 on the FIFA official rankings – a number that is sure to be frustrating to a majority of the vibrant nation’s avid followers. Their rise from the 170th position in 2014 all the way up to 97th in 2018 deserves massive credit, but since that point, things have consistently been going downhill. It’s as if the association bit off a lot more than it could chew.
The path to the highest level is far from easy in this country, and the fear that some of the best talents are not being recognised prevails to this day. Unlike nations like the UK or France, football isn’t a sport that is necessarily actively promoted by governments or other institutions. Yes, football coaching centres are aplenty all over the world now, but going to one doesn’t guarantee that a player will be given opportunities, even if they’re good enough to deserve them.
The lack of internal promotion is a challenge that is faced by many aspiring youngsters, but there is one player who has been extremely fortunate in this regard.
In contrast to the struggles of the men’s team, the Indian national women’s team has recently been making massive strides in the right direction. Their FIFA world ranking of 55 is a commendable achievement on it’s own, but the most motivating thing will be the fact that they’ve been on an upward trend. From being ranked 62nd in the world in 2018, India’s women’s team has been doing something right over the last couple of years.
Ngangom Bala Devi is a 30-year-old Indian, who has been around the nation’s footballing scene for well over 15 years now. Not only is she a former captain of the national team, but she also holds the title of being this vast nation’s all-time leading scorer in women’s football. Although this might make it sound like Devi is a European superstar, in reality, her rise to this level occurred under a year ago.
“My father used to play football as well as my brothers, so I picked up the sport of football at a very young age. Both my sister and I also got fascinated and started playing. (At) that time there weren’t too many girls who played football locally, so we used to practice and play with the boys only. I was always very passionate and enthusiastic about football.”
Devi started playing football for the national side when she was still only 15-years-old, which paints a picture of the sheer passion she had for the sport. That’s the kind of age when girls begin to explore their passions to understand what the future holds, but in Devi’s case, it was all set in stone by that point.
“My parents have always supported me – especially my father. Watching him play generated the interest in football, and after that, there was no stopping me.”
This could raise the question as to whether she had any regrets growing up, but the glimmer in her eyes every time she starts talking about the sport is a clear indicator of the opposite. Women’s football in India isn’t an option that’s open to everyone. Despite the nation still being one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, the value that is given to family, society, and cultural heritage, outweigh the wishes of most.
At least in this regard, Devi was beyond fortunate. She was born to two parents who both wanted the best for her, and if that led to playing football from such a young age, they were clearly happy to support it. She was perhaps even more fortunate to have been born in the eastern Indian state of Manipur, where football, sports in general, and women entering sports, are all supported more than the rest of the nation.
Her inspiration ran within the family, and that undoubtedly came as a blessing in disguise to Devi. Not only did she feel the need to make it at the highest level, but she also had the internal desire to make her country proud. Little did she know that, almost 15 years on from the start of her professional career, she would be making history, not just personally, but also for India as a nation. She has played for a plethora of clubs across the country, including Manipur Police, KRYPHSA, Eastern Sporting Union.
Despite becoming a regular in the national setup as early as 2005, Devi didn’t start playing club football until the summer of 2016. She joined Manipur Police and was an active member of the force until her 18-month contract at the Ibrox was finalised. In fact, Devi is still enrolled as a police officer in India, with her still serving a long-leave to pursue her footballing ambition.
It was at the start of 2020 that Devi received the good news. The first words that Neil Armstrong muttered when he placed his foot on the surface of the moon was, “a small step for man, but a giant leap for mankind”. This quote perfectly summarises what Devi has achieved.
Aditi Chouhan was an Indian goalkeeper who had a stint at West Ham United, in what was probably the first ever time that an Indian received such a massive opportunity. Bala Devi’s though was a different case altogether. Her 18-month contract with Rangers meant that she officially became the first ever Indian woman to join a completely professional football club.
“I have always wanted to play for a European club. The style of play was very interesting to me, and I wanted to learn the same. With this move to Rangers, I have finally gotten that opportunity.”
More than the achievement of a lifelong dream, it was her pride in representing a massive nation like India at the highest level of European football that drove her forward. Rangers FC is among the most celebrated football clubs in the entire world, and the reach of it’s fan base is unimaginably large. Devi’s dream was fulfilled, but the bigger picture showed that to a certain extent, India’s dream was fulfilled as well.
“I would always want to be connected with the sport. My biggest dream is to be able to provide a great learning facility for girls in my hometown. There is a lot of talent, and I would like to help them grow.”
Even though Bala Devi is now 30, her ambitious nature has remained. More than making a name for herself, her ultimate achievement is clearly to promote women’s football in India to such an extent, that anyone with a dream is given the necessary opportunity. Even in the midst of an interview, when asked about the youth of India, her response didn’t require even a second’s thought: “Never give up hope and continue training for what you want to achieve. Do this, and everything else will fall into place.”
Devi has seemingly settled into life in Scotland quite well, although the recent COVID-19 situation has undoubtedly thrown a spanner in the works. All forms of football and other sports were suspended, and Devi, without the opportunity to return to her family, stayed on in Scotland.
Now, many months down the line though, Devi seems tone quite happy with the progress that she has made. She spoke about her training regime and how she used to depend on activities like yoga and jogging to keep herself fit.
“Apart from the weather and food, everything else seems great. I’m getting used to those as well. Glasgow is very beautiful and scenic. I love going to the parks and exploring new places.“
Settling into a new country, with a new culture, especially as an Indian, was never going to be an easy task. Devi though has seemingly taken to the scene like a duck to water. She further went on to clarify her satisfaction in the manner in which she’s been received by the club and it’s staff. Considering that the club in question is a historic one like Rangers, one should expect no less.
“Football is pretty much the same all around the world. I have been playing for India since the age of 15, and to get a chance to play in the Scottish league is very exciting. I am adjusting to the pace and physicality of the game here. The coaches and teammates are all very cooperative and are helping me improve every day.”
Devi has played in two matches for the Ibrox club since making the switch but is yet to open her account. Her first performance though was an impressive one. During training too, the striker has produced the goods when required, and her teammates and staff are quite clearly happy with what they’ve seen. No change of environment comes without challenges of its own though, and that was the case with Devi as well.
“The cold weather is a challenge. But I have gotten used to it now. I have also missed my family the most during the last few months. This is the longest I have stayed away from them.”
Despite the troubles, Devi is satisfied in Glasgow. She is happy with the team, the football, and most importantly, with life in general. Rangers isn’t a club that’s easy to dislike, and Devi’s words further clarify that.
“The Women’s Rangers FC team has players from Scotland, Northern Ireland, England, France and even as far as Venezuela and of course myself from India, so it’s a mix of all cultures. All of the unit comprising of the coaches, staff and teammates are all very friendly and down to earth. I am getting along with them very well and they have made me feel extremely comfortable.”
For everything that’s been said, one thing that can be confirmed with utmost confidence is that Devi’s love for her country will not die down. While that will probably always be the case, there is another love story that has seemingly been developing in the background. Not that it needed her saying it for people to believe it, but her opinion will come as a motivator to anyone who has lost hope in Rangers’ title chances for the current Premiership season.
“I truly believe that the men’s team have a good chance at winning the title, I am a Rangers fan, and I would not want to see anyone else lift the cup.”
Irrespective of whether or not Rangers do achieve something at the end of the season, the sheer fact that someone who hasn’t followed the club avidly, has in the space of just over six months, become a selfish fan of the club, shows the reach that a team like Rangers possesses. Bala Devi is now considered an Indian hero, and her opinion on things affect thousands of aspiring young footballers all over the country.
“To be the first Indian woman to play for Rangers FC is a very big achievement not only for me but also for my nation. I hope to be the guiding path for a lot more aspiring Indian footballers in the coming future.”
Bala Devi story is sure to inspire many young footballers in India. Her dream and eventual goal is built around youth development. Rangers have been more than happy with the quality and attitude that Devi has shown since making the switch to Glasgow. If every Indian footballer who makes it into a professional club is as motivated and hard working as the Rangers striker, then European football could soon be looking at India as the next possible developmental hotspot.
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