There is no name in the women’s footballing landscape in the subcontinent bigger than that of Bala Devi. Playing with her idol Oinam Bembem Devi at the meager age of 12, making her debut for the national senior women’s team at 15, scoring 58 goals in 52 games for her country, becoming the first Indian woman to sign a professional contract with a European club – Rangers Women FC, Bala Devi has seen it all and done it all.
In 2023, after returning to India, she signed for Odisha FC Women, who are set to participate in the IWL – the Indian Women’s League for the very first time. Ahead of the opener against C.R.P.F. FC on 27th April, the icon sat down with IFTWC for a candid chat, speaking all things football. Here are some excerpts from the conversation.
In January 2020, Bala Devi became the first Indian woman to sign a professional contract with a European side – Rangers WFC. She notched up 2 goals with The Gers in 9 appearances, before suffering an ankle injury that cut her time short in Scotland. She reflected on her time with the club, “The playing style and fitness are slightly advanced. However, in India in the last 2-3 years, a lot has changed – fitness levels have improved. Many IWL squads have been playing together for a while now and have vastly developed. Technically, the IWL players have improved.”
Bala Devi has been around for much longer than the IWL. She has seen the league grow from its infantile state to what it is today. With Odisha FC Women as the only club from the ISL, other than East Bengal FC to feature in the IWL, she expects that more clubs will invest in women’s football in the future.
“I feel very confident ahead of the new season. I am very happy to represent a side from the ISL. We wish that in the future as well, teams from the Indian Super League should have teams in the IWL.”
Not only have players improved physically, but they have also matured psychologically, Bala Devi believes.
“At first, I had to take up a lot of responsibility to impart my knowledge to the youngsters. However, things have significantly changed now. It is much easier to explain tactical things to them. A lot of impressive coaches handle teams and the training sessions which the young girls undergo will help them in the long run.”
Despite being the premier footballing competition for women in the country, IWL still has a lot of room for improvement – both on the field and off the field. Commenting on the areas that the league could develop, the record goalscorer remarked, “Teams have increased in the IWL this season. Home and away fixtures will also begin from next season, I’ve heard. We need more exposure, so that more girls can join this sport. We also need matches that go on for a long duration. A one-month long league isn’t ideal, we need a longer league.”
Crispin Chhetri was appointed as the Head Coach of the club in July 2022. Not only is he an A-licesned coach, but had also led Odisha successfully in the National State Championships. Bala Devi only had good words to say about the former Mohun Bagan player, “Our coach is very good. I love to train under him. He is also great in dealing with youngsters who are learning a lot from him.”
Women’s Football in India is slowly and steadily on the rise – not just in terms of a watchable sport, but also as a potential career choice for interested young girls.
Bala Devi articulates the voice of women’s football in the country when she says, “Previously, it felt as if Women’s Football was non-existent in India. In the domestic spheres, it was believed that there was nothing to be earned by sending a daughter to become a footballer.”
“But now there is a future in women’s football. Now there are a lot of leagues where girls can prove their mettle and showcase their talent. Families should support their girls to pursue football and a career in the sport. I’d like to ask the girls to keep working hard. If you consistently keep putting in the effort, things will fall into place and your dreams will come true.” , she adds.
Despite teams being increased to 16 and a shot at getting a spot in the prestigious AFC Women’s Club Championsip, a lot of problems continue to plague the IWL. Poor broadcast and suboptimal promotion have earned a lot of criticism from football followers from the country. However, with the likes of Bala Devi voicing her approval of the innate footballing ability of the girls, nothing can hinder their progress at least on the field.
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