Football’s forward, India’s first

Manipur’s Bala Devi recently became the first Indian women footballer to sign a deal with Scottish club, Rangers FC, and became country’s first professional player

On January 29, Ngangom Bala Devi, India’s top scorer and a former captain of the national women’s football team, made history when she signed an 18-month deal with the Scottish club, Rangers FC, and became the first Indian woman to turn a pro. The announcement came barely four days after her idol and a flag-bearer of Indian women’s football, Oinam Bembem Devi, was named among the six sportspersons to be conferred with the Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian award in India.

Incidentally, the two women from Manipur have played together in national games in 2002. Bala Devi was in awe of the senior footballer and said she never thought she’d ever get to play with her.

Bala Devi was born and grew up in Manipur where football is passionately played. The state’s women’s team has won 20 of the 25 national championships that have been held since 1991. In an interview to BBC, she said: “For us in Manipur, luckily, girls are encouraged when they play sports.”

She started playing football at an early age. She was just 11 when she joined a local girl’s football club, ICSA, and began playing district-level matches. In 2005, when she was 15, she joined the under-17 Indian national team.

There has been no looking back since then. Her achievements earned her a job with the Manipur police in 2010. As a matter of fact, she was at the Manipur Police Sports Club when the Rangers came knocking. The coaches were impressed with her trial stint in November.

Amy McDonald, women’s and girls’ football manager at Rangers FC, said Bala will provide the Rangers with an attacking threat and a versatility that they can utilize to their benefit going into the 2020 season. Indian news agency Press Trust of India quoted Rangers Head of Academy Craig Mulholland as saying this: “I would like to warmly welcome Bala to both Rangers and to Glasgow. We believe this is a huge step for the women’s game both in Scotland and in general.”

Back home, she has scored 52 goals in 58 appearances for India, and has scored more than 100 domestic goals. She has represented three different clubs in the Indian Women’s League, and was the league’s top scorer for the past two seasons. She was named Women’s Player of the Year in 2015 and 2016.

She had a successful spell on trial at Rangers in November and impressed the coaches there. She thanked McDonald, the coaching staff and the entire management at Rangers for believing in her. She is awaiting international clearances and says she can’t wait to start at Rangers where she will wear the number 10 jersey, the same number that she wears for India.

Interest in women’s football has been growing across the world. More than a billion people watched the Women’s World Cup in France in 2019, according to Fifa’s estimates. TV records were broken across the globe, including in France, the United States, Germany and China, making it one of the most watched sports events.

This year, the Under-17 World Cup is being held in India, which she believes, will draw more girls to football. She dreams of “a strong league” in India where “lots of young girls play football”.

US women’s national team co-captain and midfielder Megan Rapinoe is her favourite women footballer and the Portuguese winger, Cristiano Ronaldo, the favourite among the men.

She is also the top international goal scorer in the South Asian region. After becoming the first Indian woman to become a professional footballer anywhere in the world, she hopes to inspire more girls to play football.

“I hope my move to Rangers serves as an example to all the women footballers back home in India who dream of taking up the sport professionally,” she said in the PTI interview. “I’m looking forward to making the most of the top-class facilities and coaching and I am certain I will benefit immensely from the standard of training and competition.”

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