Oinam Bembem Devi: It's a shame I am not young enough to play in the U17 World Cup
Midfielder Oinam Bembem Devi is India's most-capped woman footballer (85 caps, 32 goals) who played between 1995 and 2016. She was the first AIFF Woman Footballer of the Year in 2001, and added a second such award in 2013. She retired from international football by leading India to the South Asian Games gold in Shillong in 2016. She also became the second Indian woman footballer to win the Arjuna Award in 2017. She was player-manager for Eastern Sporting Union, Manipur when they won the inaugural Indian Women's League in 2017, and has since been in charge of the Indian U-15 and U-16 teams.
It's a shame I am not young enough to play this tournament (laughs), but for the Indian U-17 team to even qualify for the World Cup becomes very difficult. To be able to play as hosts makes this a huge opportunity, because our girls will be World Cup players at least once in their lifetime.
All I can tell the current players is that there's no substitute for hard work. The World Cup is a huge level up from AFC (Asian Football Confederation) or SAFF (South Asian Football Federation) events that we are used to competing in. The All India Football Federation (AIFF) must also prepare hard for this, because one year is too little to adapt to that level. Players at this age aren't intelligent or mature enough to improve so drastically, so they need to be supported even more, not just by the federation, but by all stakeholders. I would also tell the girls to steel themselves up mentally and physically for an event of this magnitude.
I was 15 when I made my debut, straight into the senior team [in 1995]. I was so young, and that made me nervous and quite scared of whether I would fit in. I didn't have much experience, and I just followed whatever advice my senior players passed on. Literally every instruction. I was drafted in the first eleven on my first call-up, and holding the national team jersey in my first match was a memorable moment. We beat Hong Kong, but we lost other games during my first series of games.
One of my most memorable games was beating Chinese Taipei 2-1 in 2001. We were expected to lose, but we played really well as a unit. That was the year that AIFF started their player of the year awards, and I was declared the first woman player of the year. I was quite proud of having won such an honour at just 21.
When I started out, I had to work really hard to keep up with the senior players. Back then, no senior player themselves knew what to eat, what not to eat, how to sleep and rest for proper recovery. These aspects of quality life, quality food and quality rest are things we know more about now and can guide the younger players better. I can only pass on what I know in hindsight about everything I missed when I was 15. We never had expert physios and team doctors 20 years ago. We did whatever we could and copied everything the seniors did to improve our performance.
I think what gives me the most pride is that I played for 21 years in a sport that Indians don't think of as a viable profession. I worked hard, and I performed. Winning Arjuna Award on my fourth attempt felt like a recognition for Indian football. Then there was a game between FIFA legends and AIFF legends ahead of the U-17 World Cup in 2017, where I played for the Indian team [she paired up alongside players like Renedy Singh, to face the likes of Fernando Morientes, Carlos Valderrama and Jorge Campos]. These felt like fruits of all the years of toil. It wouldn't have been possible without the support of those around me.
The World Cup in 2020 is something that every Indian must get excited about. I want everybody to get out of this mentality that girls cannot play football. Especially those girls that come from smaller towns and villages. Encourage your daughters to go out and play -- it is the best thing you can do for their education in life. Help them realise their goals.
I may not be playing this time, but I will still pass this message to every single Indian. There's nothing to suggest that girls can't play football.