Oinam Bembem started playing football with the boys in her colony in Imphal city when she was 12. She didn’t know much about football then, it was just a game that she enjoyed with her friends. But the boys in the team quickly recognised her talent. Before she knew it, she had cut her hair really short, taken on a boy’s name (Bobo, or sometimes Amko) and was playing against rival localities. The only girl on the football ground. “My own teammates knew,’’ she says. The subterfuge worked and her reputation grew.
Her father was none too pleased at the teenager scampering off to football games. “He would tell me to concentrate on my studies and make something of my life,” says Bembem, who had to make sure she got good grades at school if she had to keep on playing. A year later, O Bilashini, the captain of one of Imphal’s many local teams, spotted Bembem playing, found out she was a girl and recruited her to play for the Yawa Women’s football club.
Twenty-four years later, Bembem, 36, is the captain of the Manipur women’s football team. She has captained the Indian women’s team thrice (2003, 2010 and 2012) and aspires to be a coach after she retires. “There were times when I had to fight with my mother to get money to buy boots. But it all paid off,” she says.
The centre midfielder, who counts the Brazilian women player Marta Vieira da Silva as her role model, started playing for Manipur in 1991, and debuted for India in 1995, at her first international tournament in Malaysia. “It was only when I got an opportunity to go to Malaysia that my father finally gave in. He realised that not only was I dead serious about this but that football can actually be a career,’’ says Bembem, who is the sixth of eight siblings.
Football also led to a job with the Manipur police, which made it easier for her father to accept her decision. In a state where unemployment looms large, sports offers a way to secure a government job to many people.
Football is the most popular game in Manipur, with 13 state-level clubs for men and five major league clubs for women. There are around 269 football clubs in the state. “Besides the ones registered with us, there are innumerable clubs, each leikai (colony) has its own football club,’’ says Ranjit Roy, general secretary of the All Manipur Football Association. “Around 200 footballers from Manipur play in different clubs across the country, including Mohun Bagan. Around 25 of our players are in Goa,’’ says Roy.
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The Manipur women’s football team has won the national football tournament 17 out of 20 times, and Bembem is its star player. She is also the only woman footballer to be named Woman Footballer of the year twice – in 2001 and 2013. “Women’s football may not be as popular as men’s, but it has a great following. Stadiums are packed for state-level and national-level matches. It is also extremely competitive. We have more discipline than the men. That’s why it’s more difficult to get into the teams,” she says.
The footballer who would pick Messi over Ronaldo any day is waiting to stay up nights to watch the FIFA World Cup and cheer for Brazil. This is also the year she plans to retire. “I have played football for over 20 years now. I want to try for the position of the national coach,’’ she says. While there are married footballers in Manipur’s women’s team, Bembem says marriage is not for her. “It will just get in the way of my dream,’’ she says.