Just seconds after the final whistle, every footballer at the Ambedkar Stadium here rushed to congratulate a very special player. Oinam Bembem Devi warmly shook hands with one and all, teammates and opponents.
Bembem had just led her side Eastern Sporting to the title in the inaugural Indian Women’s League against a competitive Rising Student club. The 3-0 victory came in what was to be 36-year-old’s last game as a professional footballer. She had already called time on her international career after winning gold at the 2016 South Asian Games in front of a packed stadium in Shillong early last year.
On Tuesday, only a handful of spectators, most of them students, witnessed the final. But for those who played on the same team or against her, it was a sentimental day.
Bembem was on the field for the full 90 minutes and during this time she showed the others, most of them in their teens or early 20s, why she was a cut above the rest.
Although she missed an easy opportunity to score what would have been the fastest goal in the league, the Manipuri gave her opponents, most half her age, a run for their money.
Her movements were fluid, her passes were accurate, and her aura overpowering. “I train really hard. I maintain a very strict diet and avoid oily and spicy food,” Bembem says.
Bembem made her national debut in 1995 as a 15-year-old and with 84 caps and 32 international goals, in a career spanning over two decades, she has become one of the most iconic women players the country has produced.
When Bembem called time on her international career, after the South Asian Games, little did anyone know she would return a few months later hungry as ever. “I was asked if I want to play for the national team again and I told them (AIFF) I just want to play once in the league,” she says.
“But this is final. I won’t play another professional match for sure,” she says with moist eyes. Her send off on Tuesday was a low-key affair. No mementos, no awards or speeches. Her teammates did give Bembem a guard of honour at the end of the match. Some of the fans managed a quick selfie. But she will stay in touch with the game. Bembem is an AFC ‘B license’ coach and plans to set up an academy back in Imphal.
Kamala Devi, the highest goal scorer in the league with 11 strikes, recalls the first time she played alongside Bembem almost six years back. “I was really nervous playing along with her. I was scared she would scold me or be harsh to me. But that never happened. She helped me understand the flaws in my game and now is like my elder sister,” Kamala, a Railways employee, says. Bembem has played a major role in inspiring several women, including Kamala, to take up football as a career.
“The first time I heard about didi was on the local radio during a tournament in Imphal. Never did I expect to rub shoulders with her back then,” Kamala, who scored a brace against Rising Student, says.
Kamala received Rs 1 lakh for being the highest goal-scorer and 10 percent of it will be spent on a party she will throw for her teammates. “If they hadn’t passed me the ball, I wouldn’t have scored so many goals. So I think they deserve a treat” ‘Didi’ would no doubt be the life
of the party.